John Adams Dr. Atomic Symphony

Philadelphia Orchestra

Written by:
Lewis Whittington
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Conductor Roderick Cox made his Philadelphia Orchestra debut with a vibrant program Jan. 13-14, in Verizon Hall with works by Maurice Ravel, John Adams and Jean Sibelius.

Cox opened the concert with Adams’ Doctor Atomic Symphony, setting a high bar right out of the gate with this version of his opera, which dramatizes the events of the Manhattan Project and the testing the atomic bomb at Los Alamos in the 1940. Absent the libretto, this orchestral transcription is not as stunning, but ambitious in other ways and just as thrilling musically. Concertmaster David Kim filled the audience in on the opera’s story-line, then introduced Mr. Cox.

At the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the production featured a stunning visual effect– a huge bomb hovering over the stage. That was coupled with a dramatically intense libretto, with the central aria ‘Batter My Heart,’ which scientist John Oppenheimer sang as he confronted the implications of what he unleashed on the world.

Adams doesn’t make it a horrific soundscape, which would be too cliché, it is more a meditation on humans’ ingenuity as well as our irresistible nature to always play with fire. Adams’ sonic fields amass and fade, with atom-splitting intensity.

The Met production used enhanced electronica in parts of their production for maximum sonic impact. Cox turned up the volume in this symphonic version but with sustained crystallized dimensions , striated trajectories of the upper and lower strings, and bolts of sound from blazing horns and timpani which concussed through Verizon Hall.

Adams’ aria Batter My Heart, set to a famous verse by poet John Donne, is a profound dramatic moment in the opera. Here the melody was transferred to principal trumpet playing over Adams’ nuclear storm of a coda. The part was performed with stunning resonance by Metropolitan Opera Principal trumpeter David Krauss.

Later in the program was Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, composed in 1903, then revised two years later by the composer, In its era, it was considered structurally innovative. Soloist Agustin Hadelich brought captivating virtuosity, and a sense of musical exploration in real time which fueled the immediacy of his artistry. Meanwhile Cox sustained the muscular balance Sibelius achieved in the interplay between the soloist and orchestra.

Speaking of nuance–the colors and sensualities of Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe float in the ‘Dawn’ scene of the second choreographic Symphonie depicting the story of nymphs and satyrs seductions and bacchanalian. It is an earthy and surreal soundscape. Mark Morris is one of the few choreographers brave enough to stage it.

Cox’s played the fine line of control as Ravel’s fortissimo built to a bacchanal finale that was at least as orgasmic as Bolero. Daphnis & Chloe was a natural showcase for the Philadelphia strings and reeds, Among the outstanding soloists who conjured all of Ravel’s earthly sensualities were Jeff Khaner (flute), Philippe Tondre (oboe), Ricardo Morales. (Clarinet) and Daniel Matsukawa (bassoon).

 Cox conducted with relaxed elegance during the Ravel and throughout the concert. For a debut performance, one couldn’t help but pick up on the palpable synergy between the Cox and the musicians. Cox brings a relaxed elegance to the podium. He offered a centered reserve during the Adams, a calm in the face of a raging orchestral storm calm. In the Ravel the maestro offered rapturous expressive choreography on the podium.

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