John Adams: Encore!

Last year, I extolled the virtues of listening to new-music pieces more than once. Yesterday, I went to Carnegie Hall to hear the new Doctor Atomic Symphony by John Adams, and it was wonderful; but it was also very dense and complex, and I’d love to be able to listen to listen to it again. The problem is that it’s unlikely to be either performed in NYC or recorded any time soon. Which is why I think that last night’s concert constituted a large missed opportunity on the part of David Robertson and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Am I saying that he should have performed the entire symphony twice? Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. The symphony, you see, was “put on liposuction” (John Adams’s words) since it was first performed at the Proms in August. Back then it was over 40 minutes; now it’s less than 25 minutes. And as a result, David Robertson had to “scramble” (his words) to rejigger the program, which originally had the symphony taking up the entire second half. Since 24 minutes is a very short second half by anyone’s standards, he inserted an 18-minute Sibelius piece after the interval and before the symphony.

Now I’ve got nothing against Sibelius, but the audience certainly wasn’t coming to listen to Sibelius (they bought their tickets before the Finn was added to the menu), and most of them were very much coming to listen to Adams.

Given that the Adams symphony is now so trim, why not play it twice? Here’s what I wrote last year, after listening to Michael Gordon’s Decasia three times in a row:

Let me recommend repeat visits to any great musical experience, whether it be a contemporary symphony or a magnificently-performed opera. Too often, I think, people have the opportunity to go back and relive a wonderful performance, and don’t. Many symphonies and pretty much all operas are performed more than once: take advantage of that, if you can! I remember once going to a London Symphony Orchestra concert at the Barbican in London, where Kent Nagano started off the program with a short piece by, as I recall, Olivier Messiaen. After playing it, he announced to the audience that new and unfamiliar music really needed to be heard more than once — so he played the whole thing a second time. I wonder if that kind of thing ever happens in New York.

Robertson himself talked admiringly of the way in which composers like Sibelius and Adams do radically new things when composing their music — even as he himself originally stuck to the standard appetizer-concerto-symphony structure which concertgoers are getting increasingly bored by. Given the necessity of shaking that up a little, he chose the safest route possible, rather than doing something much more interesting and imaginative.

Indeed, during the pre-concert talk, Robertson said that his choice was between scheduling a new piece and “playing a really long encore”. He speaks fluent French, he knows exactly what “encore” means. So maybe that’s what he should have done: played the Adams symphony, taken his bow, and then asked the audience if they wanted to hear it again. The ones who didn’t could just have left; the vast majority would have very, very happily stayed for the repeat.

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5 Responses to John Adams: Encore!

  1. Alan Fiddleman says:

    I do believe that the Saint Louis Symphony recorded the Doctor Atomic Symphony when they played it in St. Louis last week. I’m not sure in what fashion and when it will be released.

  2. Mike Walk says:

    We (SLSO) did indeed record Dr. Atomic Symphony last week. It will be combined with another Adams work to be recorded in the fall, to be released on cd in, I believe, 2009.

  3. Michelle says:

    Good to know – we’ll look out for it in 09′. SLSO was fabulous last weekend.

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