John Adams Illuminates a Mixed Program

United StatesUnited States Weber, Stravinsky, Mozart, and Adams: Orli Shaham (piano), Seattle Symphony, David Robertson (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 7.1.2012 (BJ)

David Robertson is a conductor who does some things very well. The best performance I ever heard from him, a decade ago in Philadelphia, was of Kurt Weill’s Kleine Dreigroschenmusik. That points to a penchant for music of post-1900 origin, kinetic character, and a certain dryness of expression. Works like Icare and Le Nouvel Age, by Igor Markevitch, who was described by a 1930s critic as “un mystique sec,” suggest themselves as apt grist for his mill. So it was no surprise that the performance of John Adams’s Doctor Atomic Symphony that concluded this concert should have overshadowed the motley assortment of Weber, Stravinsky, and Mozart that preceded it.

Formerly classed by most observers among the minimalists, Adams has grown steadily more maximal as the years have passed, and by 2007, when he made this orchestral adaptation from the opera completed two years earlier, his range of stylistic resources had become very broad, though there was still an element of the driving rhythmic pulse associated with minimalism. Though not perhaps as substantial in inspiration or as searching in emotional range as such earlier Adams compositions as Harmonielehre and Harmonium, the Doctor Atomic Symphony is a work of striking inspiration. It fans out, from an opening of appropriately atom-splitting violence, to incorporate stretches of gentler and decidedly poetic music. It takes in along the way a sizzling trombone solo, which was brilliantly played by Ko-ichiro Yamamoto. The orchestral execution, indeed, under Robertson’s evidently dedicated leadership, was at its best for this part of the evening.

Earlier, I am sorry to say, there was altogether too much raucousness in the tuttis to make the best case for the other music. The horn section must be accounted an honorable exception to that judgement, playing suavely in Weber’s Der Freischütz overture under associate principal Mark Robbins’s leadership and in Mozart’s D-minor Piano Concerto under that of Susan Carroll.

The Mozart, however, was undermined by Orli Shaham’s rather one-dimensional projection of the solo part. She managed some fine moments, most notably at the first episode in the middle movement, but for the rest her tone did not sing, and there was little distinction in her dynamic range between a relatively lustreless piano and a hectoring, almost brutal, forte.

She should not, perhaps, be blamed for failing to find much musical satisfaction in Stravinsky’s Capriccio for piano and orchestra. Let me be honest in admitting to what is doubtless a minority view: Stravinsky is widely acknowledged to be not only an influential but a great composer, and there are works of his–though perhaps not many–that support this estimation. But asking myself about this particular piece and many others of Stravinsky’s whether, if I were told that there was no chance I might ever hear them again, I should feel any strong sense of deprivation, the answer, I’m afraid, would be a regretful “no.”

John Adams has probably not yet achieved anything quite on the level of the really great Stravinsky works, such as the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, or (despite their intermittent banalities) Oedipus Rex and the Symphony of Psalms, but if judging purely on the evidence of this particular program, a listener could well be forgiven for finding Adams the more interesting figure of the two.

Bernard Jacobson