Vancouver Symphony Orchestra
- Conductor Bramwell Tovey
- The Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver on Saturday
The star attraction of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra's concert on Saturday was the Canadian premiere of John Adams's Doctor Atomic Symphony, a free-standing orchestral piece in which the composer has reworked music from his 2005 opera Doctor Atomic.
It's interesting that Adams specifically calls the piece a "symphony," for it's not a term without baggage in the 21st century. Some consider the symphony anachronistic; others might say one doesn't make a symphony out of an opera - one makes a transcription. Others still might accuse Adams of commercial motives - getting extra mileage out of the opera by putting the music into a format with more legs. If so, is it necessary to know what the opera is about in order to fully understand the symphony? Does it really stand on its own?
I like to think that these were some of the concerns floating in the minds of the VSO's programming committee as it designed a context for the Doctor Atomic Symphony. The conceit it came up with seems, on the surface, facile - placing Doctor Atomic Symphony at the end of a symphonic continuum that starts in the 18th century with Franz Joseph Haydn, picks up a century later with Gustav Mahler, then jumps ahead another hundred years to John Adams.
But the real theme here - time - has a more complex face. Haydn's Symphony No. 101, known as "The Clock," literally marks the passage of time, second by second, in the andante's ticking accompaniment (although in conductor Bramwell Tovey's plodding tempo the tick-tock of the clock sounded more like the cluck-cluck of a hen). One of the reasons we're drawn to the adagio of Mahler's Tenth Symphony is that it is here he ran out of time - the composer died before he could finish the other movements, although not before he had orchestrated the remarkable musical scream that comes at the climax of the piece, a dissonance that uses all but three notes of the chromatic scale and spreads them throughout the orchestra and over several octaves.
Time, in Adams's Doctor Atomic Symphony, is squeezed time. And that may be the real reason Adams wrote this symphony. The libretto and the music often work against one another in the opera, the latter struggling to transcend text that is emotionally flat and physically static. In the symphony, that's not an issue. A three-hour opera (which is, itself, a countdown of the fraught hours leading up to the crucial test explosion of the first nuclear bomb in New Mexico in the summer of 1945) becomes 20 minutes of succinct, highly detailed, stunningly orchestrated music that has more dramatic momentum than any equivalent length of time in the opera. Even the finale, a reworking of the wonderful aria Batter My Heart which assigns the baritone's melody to solo trumpet (beautifully played by Larry Knopp), inhabits its moment in time more freely without its metaphysical text.
The VSO did its best playing in Doctor Atomic, with a series of imposing brass solos (the piece sometimes seems more of a "concerto for orchestra" than a symphony). Pulses churned, overlapped and contradicted one another with spiky, Stravinsky-like precision. And although the VSO strings weren't up to the challenge, I loved Tovey's conception of the Mahler - the breadth of the plush, main melody, the transitions into the lighter sections, the sparkle of the mocking interludes. This music spends time lavishly, but it was time well spent on Saturday.
Special to The Globe and Mail