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Doctor Atomic Symphony; Guide To Strange Places.

Saint Louis SO, cond. David Robertson.
Nonesuch 468220-2, 47:04.

Review by Steve Koenig

I didn't have high hopes for this disc on two counts. One, I am a fair-weather fan of John Adams. I loved his solo piano work Phrygian Gates when it first appeared on vinyl, and yet found myself instinctively compelled - I'm ashamed to say this - to join a chorus of booing at the première of Grand Pianola Music. (At the time, I felt an immediate need for insulin; now, I can admire it as grandly humorous, and rich as a many-layered cake with lots and lots of frosting. I'm not fond of cake.) Two, I am so passionate about the opera Doctor Atomic that I found it hard to accept the idea of some of the music divorced from the opera; something would surely be lacking. Despite a few episodes of langueur, the opera is riveting, majestic and brings out strong emotions.

I'm strangely moved by the power of Doctor Atomic Symphony. For one thing, the Doctor Atomic Symphony is the exemplar of how far Adams has taken 'process music' and integrated minimalist moves within the larger landscape of orchestral music. His orchestration summons flavors colorful as Ravel, dark as Mussorgsky, as grand as Mahler.

Guide To Strange Places is another strong Adams work, if somewhat typical and easily identifiable as his work. He again demonstrates a skillful and varied hand at orchestration. It opens with strings sawing and swirling punctuated, rather, propelled by slashes of basses and low horns, then tinkles and trumpets atop. It's a whirligig of movement. Other parts slam chunks of hard material at busy-bird Messiaen-ic strings.

The booklet includes the best-written and informative liner notes, by Jeremy Denk, I've seen in a long while. It presents a blow-by-blow technical and descriptive analysis of both works which any layman can understand. Discussing Guide, he explains moto perpetuo as "a kind of compositional fetish: music that depends upon a constant motoric rhythm." All the musicians of the Saint Louis Orchestra are credited by name. Highly recommended.

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