John Adams, Doctor Atomic Symphony/Guide to Strange Places

Seth Colter Walls

By Seth Colter Walls

on 08.08.11 in Reviews

Dr. Atomic Symphony/Guide to Strange Places

John Adams

Doctor Atomic is the most problematic of Adams’s operas. On the one hand, it contains some of the composer’s best music; on the other hand, it literally has something called a “corn dance” in it. This unevenness is perhaps why Adams assembled a “greatest orchestral hits” piece from it, and appended the word “symphony” for the first time ever in his career (at least to a piece for orchestra). Or maybe he was just really proud of some of this music (he ought to be).

In any case, if this doesn’t really hang together like a proper symphony, it’s full of exciting music just the same, including the climactic music from Act I of the opera, here titled “Trinity.” (In the opera, the Robert Oppenheimer character sings John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet XIV” on the night before the first nuclear test at Los Alamos. Here, the trumpet takes on Oppenheimer’s music, which contains Adams’s most lyrical melodic writing.)

The secret weapon on this release, though, is the long-unavailable “Guide to Strange Places,” which flirts with some Messiaen-like harmonies and truly apocalyptic percussive smashes before winding down to its mysteriously sputtering final seconds. Adams was already wearing the tag of “greatest living American composer” when he wrote this in 2001, so it’s impressive that he was still pushing himself to investigate new symphonic architectures for his established sound. Because it took nearly a decade for this piece to get a release, this is one of the most undeservedly slept-on Adams works. Actually put it on your stereo, though, and there’s little chance of slumber.