Prom 50: BBCSO/John Adams

Copland and Adams

Royal Albert Hall, 21 August 2007 3 stars

John Adams

As Artist-in-Association with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, John Adams assumed the role of conductor in this Prom that presented the World Premiere of his latest orchestral work, Doctor Atomic Symphony.

Although the concert juxtaposed contemporary and twentieth-century American music with the traditional European format of overture/suite - concerto - symphony, the results were disappointing and sounded considerably under-rehearsed. Opening with Copland's Billy the Kid Suite, the orchestra failed to bring any great impression of Wild West to the auditorium; there was no drama in the gun battle, no joy in the Celebration after Billy's capture, no brooding over his death. It felt as though the orchestra had no affinity with the work, and were doing their best to get it out of the way.

The following piano concerto, Adams' own Century Rolls, written in 1997 for Emanuel Ax, fared little better. Pianist Olli Mustonen did a competent job, but there was scant evidence of any rapport between conductor, soloist and ensemble. Indeed, the piano was positioned on stage in such a way that it was almost completely out of the conductor's eye line, and for the majority of the thirty-minute piece Adams barely turned to engage with the soloist. There were some magical moments, the bell-like transition from the first movement into the second, and Mustonen rang out references to Satie's Gymnopédies with a clear tone, but ultimately the lack of engagement on stage was transmitted to the audience; what should have represented the repetitious grind of turn-of-the-century pianola music simply dragged.

Adam's opera Doctor Atomic, which London audiences can see at English National Opera in 2009, was premiered in 2005, taking the development and first test of the atomic bomb as its subject and J. Robert Oppenheimer as its protagonist. Whilst Adams admits he does not like to be called a political composer - The Death of Klinghoffer deals with terrorism and Nixon in China with presidential politics - he explains that he chose these subjects because 'they lie at the absolute core . of our collective experience'. Speaking at the Pre-Prom talk he confessed that, rather naively, he thought he could make a symphonic event from this opera using 'cut and paste', but found what he had planned to do in one month, took seven. He admitted that the process was in fact harder than writing a stand-alone instrumental piece 'because of the burden of what to do with the text'.

Perhaps it was also naïve to think that an audience who had not experienced the opera could wholly understand the world premiere of the symphony. As it was, the piece, which reduced a two-and-a-half-hour opera to forty minutes, felt overly long and lacked the direction a narrative and text would have otherwise provided. Only the short final movement, which featured music from the end of Act I, was worthy of Adams' colossal reputation. In the opera a setting of Donne's sonnet Batter my heart, three-person'd God is sung by Oppenheimer, and here transferred to trumpet sounding an octave higher. Finally the audience caught a glimpse of Adams at his moving and expressive best, before the stirring movement ended on a pulsing D minor chord, obliquely referencing Beethoven's Symphony No.9. For such a high-profile composer, conducting his own work, the concert was poorly attended, but those who had ventured out were won over by the heartfelt close, and the composer was justly applauded.

By Úna-Frances Clarke