John Adams’s Doctor Atomic Symphony

On Friday evening I went to see John Adams take on the role of conductor in a performance of his Doctor Atomic Symphony with the LSO at Bristol’s Colston Hall. They also performed Sibelius 6, and Britten’s Four Sea Interludes. Now, whilst it was nice to hear the Britten performed live, and whilst I really don’t want to criticise the conducting of one of the worlds greatest living composers…. I think I do prefer the recording I have on CD that I’m far more used to.

The John Adams piece is a 25 minute symphony constructed from material from his opera, Doctor Atomic. In a pre-concert talk the composer had mentioned how those 25 minutes were really intense and full, and in the performance it did indeed feel far longer than I’d expected. The piece itself was pretty good, especially towards the end, although there were a few moments during the first half that felt rather episodic, and after just one listening didn’t make much sense to me.

If I’d already known the material I think it would have been far easier for me to appreciate how it had been treated as a symphony, and I’ll definitely try and get hold of the DVD of the opera sometime soon.

The most interesting thing about the evening was probably the friendly and quite informal interview before the show. For example it was quite a surprise actually to hear someone dismiss atonality so casually. He spoke in quite accessible terms when he said something along the lines of “So about a hundred years ago some people thought tonality was done, all used up – they should’ve tried telling that to the Beatles….”

He also spoke about how music was far better at inspiring emotions than communicating concepts. I can’t remember the specifics of how he phrased this, nor why it seemed more insightful than the numerous other times I must have heard people relate the same sentiments, but it definitely left me with something to think about.


About jackwestmore

Jack Westmore writes music for film, television and media, and is currently based in Cardiff in the UK.
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