John Adams seemed to be marking out his territory with the Suite from his compatriot Copland's ballet Billy the Kid. At the heart of it, a solo trumpet contemplates the "Prairie Night", sounding a kind of "last post" for the old West. Such a moment is mirrored in the brand new symphony Adams has forged from his latest opera, Doctor Atomic.
What a great, provocative title that is, and how powerfully Adams evokes its B-movie connotations in the music's opening roar. There's something of the mad scientist about the thunder-sheet-buttressed brass chordings, the obsessive machine-like cogitations of the internal rhythms.
The opera is, of course, about the creation of the first weapon of mass destruction and the man who did so, J Robert Oppenheimer. Inspired by the model of Hindemith's Mathis der Maler Symphony, Adams sets about recomposing material from the opera with the purpose of carrying the stage drama to the concert platform. He succeeds.
The humanity of both pieces – symphony and opera – is to be found in the music reflecting the private world of Oppenheimer and his wife Kitty, a world essentially torn apart by the terrible implications of his discovery. But Adams looks at the bigger picture in the slow movement of his symphony. In music of overreaching romanticism he does a kind of borderline John Williams on us and through transfixing solos for horn, trombone and cellos has us stargazing in wonder at worlds beyond the one we inhabit – the implication being "where next?"
Then, in a furious finale evolving from a vortex of string figurations, he arrives at his moment of truth – that trumpet solo. Heavy with anxiety, it is an aria of regret for the American Dream betrayed; the loneliest sound in the world for the loneliest man in the world. The BBC Symphony Orchestra's principal trumpet, Gareth Bimson, eloquently conveyed all of that and more.
The other Adams offering was his pianola-inspired Century Rolls, a piano concerto of wicked intricacy arranged around another slow movement of celestial delights. Olli Mustonen was about as cool and precise as it was possible to be, but the intimations of boogie-woogie and the laconic shimmying of the Fats Waller allusions seemed to pass him by. Adams' soloists need to be useful actors, too.Reuse content