LSO/John Adams – Britten, Sibelius & Doctor Atomic Symphony

Peter Grimes – Four Sea Interludes
Symphony No.6 in D minor, Op.104
Doctor Atomic Symphony

London Symphony Orchestra
John Adams

Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: 7 March, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

John Adams. Photograph: Deborah O'GradyJohn Adams follows an honorary line of composer/conductors in American music, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein being two others of note. He has a crystal-clear beat and an open mind to others’ music. Now an iconic figure in Western music he evidently enjoys his close association with the London Symphony Orchestra, its players responding with professional pride and keen intensity.

Adams’s Doctor Atomic Symphony derives from the opera. It was premiered at the 2007 BBC Proms and then lasted 50 minutes. “Too long” was the swift conclusion of the composer and he shortened it to the current 25 or so minutes. The programme note mentions a Sibelian link in that it is in a continuous movement in the manner of Sibelius’s Seventh, a composer Adams admires and a work that has influenced him.

Doctor Atomic Symphony begins with discordant, loud sounds dominated by brass, perhaps meant to presage the horrors of atomic warfare soon to be unleashed on the world; the opera concentrates on the 24 hours leading to the first explosion of an atomic bomb in the Mohave Desert in America. The following subsidence is interrupted by energetic strings that recall the repetitive nature of Adams’s earlier style. Momentum is maintained with brass interjections until these instruments take over the thematic action. A reflective waltz for strings produces a sense of unease. Stravinskian string syncopations are heard before a hush descends, allowing a solo horn to meander its way into a dawn chorus in the orchestra. Activity gradually picks up for a solo trumpet to sing a soft, sad melody tinged with regret, possibly for scientific behaviour that literally changed the world. This is the emotional core of the symphony, moving and poignant. This elegy is blown away in a short coda, as if to say life changes, life continues, with very much a shrug of the shoulders.

Adams conducted with huge assurance and the LSO rose to the occasion, relishing the various opportunities for solo contributions. Now shortened, the symphony is tightly constructed and has a refreshing intensity born of an invigorated mind seemingly fully involved with the life-threatening subject-matter. It has to be said that Adams has become much more mainstream; he has lost his exploratory edge from his early years, except to say to try and emulate the formal complexities of his model, Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony, is not only a tribute but also a challenge of considerable scope. Doctor Atomic Symphony deserves to enter the repertoire.

It was not clear how Adams chose the rest of the programme. Avoiding the obvious comparison with a role model, he instead chose Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony, a concert hall rarity and, therefore a welcome performance under most conditions. Adams, in the Study Day before the concert, said clinical depression informed this work. His interpretation is obviously coloured by this outlook although he conducted with evident joy and enthusiasm relishing the polyphonic strands in the opening movement and the quiet mysteries in the development section. His gentle tempo for the second movement opened into a world of rumination. The scherzo’s heartbeat bought forth an exhilarating stream of life-enhancing joie de vivre but it was in the finale that bore out the interpreter’s views of this work most succinctly. It was taken at a demonic pace that sometimes proved hard to balance the tribulations with the ecstasies inherent in the music. The coda became a thanksgiving for salvation; peaceful, tranquil at the outbreak of dawn.

The ‘Four Sea Interludes’ capture the salty tang of Britten’s opera-setting of “Peter Grimes”, a mysterious dawn followed by a neighbourly gathering of townsfolk. The final part, ‘Storm’, combined both the physical and the psychological aspects Britten surely meant in his stirring outburst.

  • John Adams conducts the LSO on Thursday 11 March at 7.30 p.m.
  • LSO
  • Barbican

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