"Nixon in China" seems to have a tough time finding its way to San
Francisco (*http://tinyurl.com/ysya9q)*, but John Adams' "Doctor Atomic"
exploded here for the first time, in a 2005 War Memorial Opera House
world premiere. Similar to "Nixon," however, the new orchestral version
- "Doctor Atomic Symphony" - may take some time to get here, although
perhaps not two decades.
The work had its U.S. premiere this week in St. Louis, David Robertson
conducting. Robertson, to whom Adams dedicated the "Doctor Atomic
Symphony," and the Saint Louis Symphony will repeat the performance on
tour in Carnegie Hall on Feb. 17. There are performances scheduled in
Europe and the U.S., including by Michael Tilson Thomas' New World
Symphony in Miami on March 22, Adams conducting. And when do we get to
hear it? The answer will have to wait until March 3 when MTT announces
the San Francisco Symphony's next season.
In a "Symphony" magazine article by Thomas May (not available on-line),
the famously reliable Adams, always on time delivering new works,
explains the reason for being so late this time that the scheduled March
2007 world premiere by the commissioning SLSO had to be shifted to a
London Proms concert in August.
"I was extremely embarrassed that I missed the original premiere date,"
Adams told May, who writes that the composer had a "powerfully creative
re-engagement with the music that proved to be more time-consuming than
he had initially allowed for - explanding from one month to seven."
Robertson, although missing out on the being first, had a sanguine view
of what happened: "John wasn't just grabbing bleeding chunks [from the
opera] and trying to suture them together... What I hear in "Doctor
Atomic" are certain things that are innovations for John in his own
language. The story brought out an extra layer from him. At first there
was talk of a vocal symphony based on the opera, but then I thought an
instrumental piece would be more interesting."
The symphonic version of "Atomic", May writes, "required Adams to return
to the opera's sonic world of nervously crackling polyrhythms and
ominous harmonies." Adams - who had spoken of becoming ill "handling
plutonium for three years," leading up to the opera's premiere - at
first regarded the instrumental version as a matter of "compiling...
cut-and-paste." But when he started the work, "I realized symphonic
logic and operatic logic are two completely different species."
Some musical ideas in the opera, May writes, "felt cut short as a
result of stage priorities. His process with the symphony became one
of elaborating on some of those ideas by extending and transforming them,
following a trajectory dictated not by dramatic concerns but by the
score's self-contained musical language as it unfolded."
Even the symphony's length turned out different - longer - than Adams
had originally expected it to be. Rather than something "along the lines
of Hindemith's modestly scaled three-movement symphony drawing themes
from `Mathis der Maler,'" Adams' symphony is running about 45 minutes,
becoming his second-longest instrumental work, after "Naive and
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