Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Adams’ Doctor Atomic Symphony, performed here by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra under the direction of David Robertson, is a thrilling distillation of musical themes from Adams’ 2005 opera Dr. Atomic. This 2007 work is a 25-minute white-knuckle ride that manages to convey all the drama, dread, tension and uncertainty that distinguished Adam’s impressionistic examination of the life of scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer. It’s a tale blending history, politics, science and ethics, centered around “an anti-hero, laced with deep moral dilemmas,” as Atomic Symphony liner-notes writer Jeremy Denk puts It. It is a real-life saga in which the fate of humanity truly hangs in the balance. And it still does: as the New York Times noted, Dr. Atomic remains “all too timely.”
The New York Times has also praised Dr. Atomic as Adams’ “most complex and masterly music...The tension mounts as Mr. Adams builds up a din of pummeling rhythms and fractured meters, with orchestra chords exploding into shards of harmonic debris: call it Atomic Minimalism.” The opera received its premiere in San Francisco and was restaged last autumn in a sold-out production at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera. Doctor Atomic subsequently opened at the ENO in London to unanimous acclaim. The Observer admired "Adams's meditative, richly faceted score”; The Times said, “Once again Adams has turned 20th-century history into absorbing, provocative music-theatre.”
Paired on this disc with Dr. Atomic Symphony is Adams’ 2001 Guide To Strange Places, an equally kinetic, though far less disquieting, composition, inspired, Adams has said, by a family trip to Southern France, the title taken from a guidebook Adams found. The 22-minute work was also the springboard for a highly regarded 2003 dance piece by New York City Ballet choreographer Peter Martins, as part of a John Adams Festival at Lincoln Center. The New York Times calls Guide “a knock out,” one that “teems with wide-eyed curiosity and non-stop energy.”
Doctor Atomic Symphony is being released during an extraordinarily fertile period for Adams. This May the composer himself conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a production of his 2006 opera A Flowering Tree, released by Nonesuch in 2008. The Los Angeles Times declared that “the blissfully beautiful two-hour score enchants from first bar to last ... The sounds are magical.” In 2008, Adams also penned a frank and fascinating memoir, Hallelujah Junction, and Nonesuch in tandem released a two-disc retrospective of the same name. Said Publishers Weekly, "Adams's searingly introspective autobiography reveals the workings of a brilliant musical mind responsible for some of contemporary America's most inventive and original music."