John Adams’ tenure as composer in residence with the BBCSO has produced several Proms firsts, and in keeping with the principal theme of the season, this did so on three counts, with a world first’ in the premiere of his Doctor Atomic Symphony.
In doing so Adams was consciously following in the footsteps of Hindemith, pulling together the principal material from an opera and expressing it symphonically.
In this case the source material is lifted from Adams’ most recent stage work, the Doctor Atomic opera of 2005 that follows the invention of the atomic bomb by J. Robert Oppenheimer. However, where Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler and Die Harmonie von der Welt symphonies work their thematic material in concise guidelines, this was a big-boned structure weighing in at a hefty forty five minutes. And while we’re speaking of structures, the construction in the percussion area, top left of the stage, would have graced any doctor’s laboratory!
It found full use in the eruptive finale of the Symphony, and it was here that the work’s most memorable music could be found, trumpeter Gareth Bimson red faced as he shot out a series of impeccable top D’s. Timpanist John Chimes meanwhile was a source of rhythmic drive throughout, providing impetus as the music regained its strength.
In keeping with the subject matter, Adams’ music was more evidently discordant, and this contributed to a disquieting opening section of unresolved brass harmonies. After a promising beginning the momentum flagged for the second section, The Bedroom, where nicely secured textures could not compensate for overstretched thematic material. That said, the work as a whole made a strong impact despite its length, in particular the exhilarating rush of the final bars, and is well worth a second listen before a proper appraisal can be made.
Century Rolls, too, made its first Proms appearance, under the spiky fingers of Olli Mustonen. As is his wont, Adams set down rigid beats through his conducting, though ensemble was not always tight, despite frequent communication between conductor and soloist. The transition from First Movement to Manny’s Gym was notable for the shimmering bell texture, and here Mustonen’s sharply edged piano connected well with the legato strings, the pianist occasionally hanging his hands claw-like before launching into another extended phrase.
The spot-lit brass of the first movement drew from Copland’s orchestral writing, a comparison thrown into sharp focus by a lively opening performance of the suite from Billy The Kid. Once again trumpet and timpani impressed, though at times the percussion obliterated the brass, at least from where I was sat. Here though the strings took the lead, with a wonderfully wide-eyed evocation of the prairie by day, then oscillating softly in the lightly moving portrayal of its night-time antics.
Adams’ hyperactive attention to detail brought off the most successful performance of the night, and illustrated Copland’s mastery of concision within the suite, perhaps at the expense of his own.