Sounds Heard: John Adams—Doctor Atomic Symphony


John Adams—Doctor Atomic Symphony
First Movement: The Laboratory


Purchase: David Robertson & Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra - J. Adams: Doctor Atomic Symphony & Guide to Strange Places

John Adams—
Doctor Atomic Symphony

Nonesuch 468220-2
Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson, Music Director

I have to admit that when the Nonesuch recording of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic Symphony first arrived in the mail, my first thought was to reseal the envelope and send it right on to Ron Rosenbaum.

If the name isn’t ringing any bells, Rosenbaum is the critic who despised the libretto by Peter Sellars but appreciated the music, and said as much in his review of the stage production of Doctor Atomic that appeared on Slate last year. I don’t actually know Rosenbaum, nor do I have his mailing address in my Rolodex, but I hope he gets a copy some way or another because I think it would make up somewhat for his disappointments.

I say that because whatever your thoughts on the original three-hour opera—or if you didn’t get the chance to see it for yourself, as I did not—at just under 25 minutes this orchestral suite comes across as a tight, visceral ride that you won’t want to miss. In this incarnation it is, of course, uncluttered by words and sets and costuming, and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra and conductor David Robertson light it on fire.

Having not seen the complete production, I can’t exactly argue that the piece doesn’t need its verbal narrative, but Adams’ exploration of nuclear anxiety is vividly captured in this condensed three-movement instrumental version. The chills start running the moment the percussion, horns, and strings begin their pulsing wails. Later, a simple, reflective oboe line inspires heartsickness without a word needed.

In a way, I feel like this is an ultimate kind of “movie music,” not in the soundtrack sense, where the notes must get out of the way of the action and dialog, but in the sense that it’s unabashedly tied to a storyline and so evocative and inspiring that it allows listeners to conjure impressions and reactions that are as complex and completely engrossing as if it were being played out in full color before their eyes.

Nonesuch has paired the Doctor Atomic Symphony with another Adams work of equal length, though one unburdened by its moral weight, his Guide to Strange Places from 2001. Inspired by a French touring guide that was bursting with details of the unusual, Adams scores a layered, nuanced, and solidly crafted journey in sound and invites his listeners to fly alongside him as fellow armchair travelers. That’s not to imply that this is a vacation made up of frivolous distractions. The music soars and scurries through some seriously sinister landscapes as it carries the ear swiftly across great expanses of terrain.

This is a first recording for both of these pieces, and a first for Robertson with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. And in this case—despite a spelling snafu that knocked the disc’s initial release date off schedule—it’s as charmed a production as you could wish for.