Right when I took my blogging hiatus, I received a review copy of John Adams' Doctor Atomic Symphony, performed by the Saint Louis SO, conducted by David Robertson. It only seems fair that I actually review it, even if 2 months after every other classical blog. My impressions are unsullied by any experience with the source opera, so take that as you will. First of all, the performance of the orchestra is phenomenal. Every sound is clear, nuanced, and directed. The opening movement, "The Laboratory" is the shortest, at only 2.5 minutes. It opens with proper foreboding about the creation of a military monster. The immensity of the bomb, both in physical size and in global effect, is portrayed with wide ranges, extreme dynamics, and densely dissonant chords. This movement does calm down, perhaps with the introspection that often begins a research project. "Panic" is indeed frenzied, lots of fast strings with intense brass and woodwind lines over them. This is great running music, much like Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine. The background pulse stays the same, but foreground rhythms change up the feeling of meter significantly. At one point the strings sound like a geiger counter. Over the 14+ minutes of this movement the style does change, losing the frenzy for isolated moments before panic sets back in. There is a nice trumpet solo in the middle, played very well by Susan Slaughter. The third movement, "Trinity" plays with layered rhythmic ostinati in a very minimalist way for the opening. The trumpet solo is almost heart-breaking, but something keeps it at a remove for me, I think there is some kind of disconnect between the trumpet and the accompaniment. In fact, it is somewhat reminiscent of Ives' The Unanswered Question, which Adams mimicked in his On the Transmigration of Souls. But something about this solo makes me want to have it connect with the orchestra, unlike the other two works.
I watched Gustavo Dudamel conduct the premiere of Adams' City Noir on PBS the other night, and had similar reactions as to this symphony. There are plenty of moments that make me want to turn to something else, but just as my hand reaches for the TV controls or the iPod, Adams throws in a sound that intrigues me and keeps me listening.