Soon after David Robertson attended the premiere of John Adams' Doctor Atomic at the San Francisco Opera in late 2005, he laid the groundwork for another Adams premiere, this time at Powell Symphony Hall. The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra Music Director had worked with the Pulitzer Prize _winning composer on several occasions over the past decade, and the two kept in touch. When Adams confessed to Robertson that he wasn't quite ready to leave Doctor Atomic behind, Robertson was inspired to commission a symphony derived from the same source material and with the same themes of the opera. "It seemed to me a fascinating thing to see what would come from a work that wouldn't just have the orchestral interludes from the opera but would actually need to be recomposed for the orchestra," he says. "It ended up being not just a cut-and-paste job, which is why we're doing the performance now rather than when we originally scheduled it last year."
Instead of merely stringing together the music that remained after the singing was stripped away, Adams subjected his score to radical revision. Without the narrative considerations that opera, as a dramatic form, requires, he was free to think strictly in absolute-music terms. According to Robertson, the evolution of the piece from opera to symphony is "a way of exploring how music functions in different contexts, one in which language is the prime motivator and conveys meaning, and another in which you can hear what the music conveys in terms of emotional content when it's not, in a sense, burdened with words.
The symphony's emotional trajectory does not follow the plot of the opera, which was structured as a kind of countdown to the fateful explosion. Explains Robertson: "The symphony ends with music from the opera's first act, which contains the John Donne poem 'Batter My Heart, Three-Person God.' The last movement is called 'Trinity' and is a perfect way to end the symphonic contemplation of the ideas, leaving the question [of atomic warfare] open."
Asked what he most loves about the symphony, Robertson points to "the combination of calm and panic that runs like a leitmotif right through it. I think that [the "Trinity" movement] is some of the most beautiful music that he has ever penned. The trumpet solo at the end is just staggeringly gorgeous."
The symphony was originally scheduled to premier in St. Louis last March, but Adams needed more time to complete it. Even after the work made its official debut, in London, late last year, he wasn't quite satisfied. "He realized that as an instrumental piece it needed to be slightly tighter," Robertson recalls. "He revised the first two movements, I believe, and made them more concise. In a way, it's perhaps poetic justice because we're still doing the world premiere, just the world premiere of the revised version, although I don't believe that's what we're calling it."
Robertson describes Adams, a skilled conductor himself, as a deeply involved but never intrusive collaborator. "When I did El Niê±o the first time in Boston," Robertson recalls, "John came to the rehearsal and said, 'My God, you're really fast at the opening.' And I said, 'Yes, but that's because what you've written is about this lightness of the annunciation angel that comes down, and like a dream, just alights in Mary's consciousness, and then this thing happens, which is the beginning of the miracle, so it can't be heavy-footed.' And he said, 'Well, it might still be too fast.' And so I slowed it down, and then he said, 'You know, you're right: Go back to your old tempo.' The thing that's fun about working with him is that he is open to the fact that once he's written it, the piece then starts to live in a way that's entirely its own."
Adams reveals a mutual appreciation for Robertson, as he has dedicated the Doctor Atomic Symphony to him.
For Robertson, the Doctor Atomic opera and symphony function both as an expression of Cold War anxiety and as an examination of the human condition: "There's that real sense, when you enter the atomic age, of both the extraordinary wonder and the extraordinary terror that can come from precisely the same thing. You split the atom, and you open up the doors to heaven and hell at the same time. The fascinating thing about knowledge is that it cuts both ways: having the knowledge to do something that can be used in all sorts of different ways; understanding more about psychology can help you heal people, or it can help you learn to torture them better.
"I think this is why, in a sense, you don't make political statements with art. If you do, what you're making is a political statement, and you're rarely making art; that's my personal opinion. I think that what art does is take us to a realm in which notions of partisanship are stripped away, and we meet in this place where the universal constant of human affairs is the fact that we all have music, whatever our culture, our backgrounds, our beliefs."
David Robertson and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra perform the United States premiere of John Adams' Doctor Atomic Symphony at Powell Symphony Hall February 7-8, 2008.
Ren_ Spencer Saller is an award-winning music critic who writes for the Illinois Times and other publications.