Classical mushroom cloud
Doctor Atomic Symphony
Davis, CA 95616
Friday’s appearance at the Mondavi Center by the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra will likely prove to be the most interesting orchestra concert we’ll hear in this area all year. It will be highlighted by a performance of the recent Doctor Atomic Symphony by Bay Area composer John Adams, which is dedicated to SLSO conductor David Robertson. The orchestra recently issued the premiere recording of the piece, so it is distinctly cutting-edge work.
Adams’ opera Doctor Atomic, which tells the story of the creation of the atomic bomb, premiered in San Francisco in 2005. Robertson, who had already been programming a good deal of Adams’ music in St. Louis, invited the composer to write an orchestral piece drawing on the opera’s music, and Adams accepted. The Doctor Atomic Symphony premiered in London in 2007; Robertson and the SLSO produced the first American performances, in St. Louis and at Carnegie Hall, the following year.
The Doctor Atomic Symphony begins with a loud jolt in the form of blaring, urgent (and somewhat dissonant) brass. Adams has described the opening as a tip of the hat to experimental 20th-century French-American composer Edgard Varèse (who was also admired by Frank Zappa). But also audible is a hint of Brahms in the throbbing beats coming from the timpani, which Brahms used in the dramatic opening of his First Symphony. The Doctor Atomic Symphony concludes with music from the opera’s climax, originally for baritone but rescored for solo trumpet, of John Donne’s 1610 holy sonnet “Batter My Heart.”
The Mondavi performance will feature Susan Slaughter, a legendary figure in brass circles who joined the SLSO in 1969, and four years later became the first female principal trumpet with a major orchestra. Slaughter will retire later this year, making this one of the last opportunities to hear her work.
Also on the program will be the Seventh Symphony of Jean Sibelius, which, like the Doctor Atomic Symphony, is a roughly 30-minute piece played straight through without breaks as the composer develops the musical ideas in a fluid sequence. The Sibelius Seventh is also famous as the great Finnish composer’s “last word”—he completed the piece in 1924, and although he lived for another 30-plus years, he never finished another symphony.
The program will also feature star violinist Gil Shaham (he’s won a fistful of Grammy awards, among other honors) in the Second Violin Concerto of Sergey Prokofiev, dating from 1935, which was shortly after the Russian-born composer moved back to what was then the Soviet Union. Shaham, incidentally, is conductor Robertson’s brother-in-law; Robertson is married to pianist Orli Shaham, whose career includes appearances with the SLSO.
The concert will open with another American piece that’s fairly new—Rapture by Christopher Rouse, a 13-minute piece that premiered in 2000, and which should provide a distinct contrast to Adams’ work. Rouse said he “used the word rapture to convey a sense of spiritual bliss. … The entire work inhabits a world devoid of darkness, hence the almost complete lack of sustained dissonance.”