Monday, 8 March 2010

John Adams and the LSO batter my heart with the Dr Atomic symphony

I didn't expect Saturday's gloriously played Shostakovich to be topped, but somehow John Adams and the London Symphony Orchestra managed it. After the interval, the composer/conductor took to the stage to introduce his work, talking about how his operas, such as Dr Atomic, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, have contemporary themes that resonate heavily and also his attraction to the widely read and cultured character of Oppenheimer. As regular readers will know, I'm not normally a fan of talking to the audience like this, but Adams gave a lesson in how it should be done as he proceeded to comprehensively eclipse the programme note, outlining the work's four sections and the distribution of various vocal parts to members of the brass section.

As someone who's seen Dr Atomic twice, I expected the symphony derived from it to be very familiar. In some ways it was, but more than that it stood by itself. Adams mentioned his desire that it should be more than a simple collection of chunks and he has certain succeeded. Those who heard the much longer first attempt at the 2007 BBC Proms will find a tighter, better focused and, consequently, more powerful work.

Opening explosively with what Adams termed his "Sci-Fi music", it soon became apparent that we were going to be treated to one of the world's finest orchestras on top form. This was underscored in the following "panic" section, fiendishly and thrillingly scored for strings, especially the violins. As the the action moved to the desert and the imminent nuclear test, the opera's arrogant and overweight General Groves was replaced by Katy Jones's superb trombone solo. Many other fine orchestral touches were on show, doubtless present in the opera but which I didn't notice in the theatre, including the atmospheric use bowed symbols and gongs.

However, for the work's finale, or rather final section, as it is a continuous piece, transitioning as naturally as fine performance of Sibelius seven, he had wisely chosen not the atomic blast, but the opera's big number: his setting of John Donne's Batter My Heart. Of course, it's brave to take such a literary moment and transfer it to a purely orchestral setting, but the decision to shift octaves and replace voice with trumpet was vindicated in a superb performance by Chris Deacon. Doubtless it resonated more strongly for me as I could hear the words ringing in my head - I think it would be worth printing the poem in the programme. Nonetheless, this section of music, a true emotional maelstrom, would surely be devastating even without. Under the composer's direction, the orchestra turned in as fine a performance as you could wish to hear. The long queue for autographs afterwards suggested that I was not alone in this view. One can only hope that they were recording it for LSO Live (not least as the playing thoroughly outshone that of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra on the available recording).

The rest of the concert was good, if not in the same league. They opened with Britten's Sea Interludes. As Adams' talk illustrated, these provided a nice contrast to his own work as they are simply four chunks. In a live Q&A webcast earlier in the day he was asked if he'd been to Aldeburgh as the work was so evocative of there. He hadn't, but I don't think that's required; to me they're evocative of the sea generally as much as anything. Adams gave an interesting reading, one that seemed highly analytical, bringing out this wonderful detail here, then that. This was nice, especially given the uniformly excellent playing, but somehow the poetry and flow of the best accounts was absent.

The first half closed with Sibelius's sixth symphony. Honestly, you wait the better part of three years for a performance and then suddenly two come along one month after another. The other day Adams discussed the piece on his blog. I was glad to have read this as it was most instructive about his interpretation. He doesn't seem to love the symphony in quite the same way as I do: for me it is a thing of aching beauty. There was beauty, of course, and from the opening, starting with that lovely theme on the second violins. It helped too that the LSO surely have Sibelius in their blood after the two cycles they've recorded with Davis. All the same, for whatever reason it didn't entirely grab me. He took generally brisk tempi, except for the second movement, which was taken quite slowly. Certainly his arguments for this latter decision on his blog are persuasive, but I didn't feel it worked. Vanska's account in February was more heartbreakingly beautiful, more poetic. In some ways I can't help thinking the seventh, with its single movement structure, would have made for more interesting programming.

All in all though, it would have been a bargain had they just played Dr Atomic.


Footnote. As I remarked when I saw the LSO with Gardiner last month, I've been experimenting with balcony seats. Tonight I was fairly at the centre of the front row and the sound was as good and clear as I've heard in the Barbican, and not too dry.

Additional footnote. The concert was part of the LSO's ambassadors student scheme. Not only does this look rather good (though not as good as if I were still a student), but I mention it as it occasioned a second 'alternative' set of notes in the programme which, if I'm being honest, I rather preferred.

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