Music review: Adams's 'Doctor Atomic' by BSO at Strathmore

HIGH NOTE: Marin Alsop was at her best in the Mendelssohn concerto.
HIGH NOTE: Marin Alsop was at her best in the Mendelssohn concerto. (Grant Leighton)
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Saturday, October 2, 2010

Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra brought two overplayed chestnuts and a local premiere to the Music Center at Strathmore on Thursday evening.

John Adams has assembled a "symphony" from his recent opera "Doctor Atomic," and Alsop, a longtime champion of Adams, presented it. Program symphonies have a long, distinguished history (Beethoven, Berlioz, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Strauss, Shostakovich, etc.), and good new ones are added regularly. But if the music is going to lean on externalities, it helps if the audience is generally aware of what they are. Other than pounding, generically "apocalyptic" passages, the murky philosophical/mythological concepts Adams tried to explore in the opera do not particularly stick in anyone's mind. Lacking internal musical thrust or logic, the symphony was riddled with longueurs, especially in the slower sections. The lengthy trumpet solo near the end, which the program notes advise is an orchestrated soliloquy from the opera on a John Donne poem, was only the most prominent example.

As for Adams's trademark pulsating, machinelike faster passages, one felt for the BSO musicians, each counting frantically and trying not to be the one cog that disrupts the machine.

The Dvorak "New World Symphony" is, of course, one of the great crowd-pleasers in the canon, delivering the highest technical and artistic achievements in a folklike voice that is accessible to any sentient listener. But are Strathmore audiences that desperate to hear it repeatedly? Both the Baltimore Symphony and the National Philharmonic have already given it there in the few years since the venue opened, and this fall both are playing it again. If patrons don't mind hearing Alsop's take on the piece again after just three years, perhaps readers won't mind if I just reprint what I wrote the last time: "[Her] interpretation was vigorous, but generically so. There seemed to be little effort to place the piece in its proper stylistic context. The scherzo was breathless a la Beethoven (no sense of earthy Indian drumming), the varied thematic strands in the finale all sounded the same, and the Largo exposed numerous imprecisions in pitch and attack."

Violinist Stefan Jackiw delivered Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto before intermission. While his sound is not especially large or interesting, he has an appealing hyper-sensitive performing style, moving in a kind of unconscious reverie, the passage-work glistened with precision. Alsop's accompaniment was absolutely superb, the best thing she did all night.

-- Robert Battey

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