Adams Doctor Atomic Symphony
Guide to Strange Places is a great title that’s been waiting for a piece. Whether John Adams’s 2001 Technicolor 20-minute orchestral showcase fully has the courage of its convictions – what are these “strange places”? It might be nice if they were even stranger, and why would we need a guide to them anyway? – is a moot point.
Adams describes his piece as a “descent into an imagined, unexpected underworld”, citing the fantastical 19th-century sound worlds of Mussorgsky, Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique as points of departure. He also references Ligeti and Birtwistle who are most audible during the surprisingly hardcore conclusion, as the g-force of woodwind caterwauls and bruising percussion inserts snap the structure. David Robertson and his athletically shrill St Louis Symphony Orchestra enjoy ramming that point home. Adams being Adams, of course, he prepares the ground thoroughly to avoid frightening any horses. Only niggling tuba, later bass drum, thuds suggest that the characteristic looping string arpeggios at the outset might be up for a rougher ride than usual.
What does it add up to? File under “enjoyable escapism”. Unlike the natural charm of, say, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Adams needs to turn his charm on. A jazzy, wolf-whistling riff appears from nowhere that sounds like pure Bernstein – and a contrived sprinkling of Disney-like tinsel before the hard-hitting end-point. The Doctor Atomic Symphony, drawn from his recent opera, is, frankly, the weakest Adams I’ve ever heard. Overbearing rhetoric, vapid gestures, oven-ready orchestration. Enough said.