CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 12 NOVEMBER 2009
John Adams: Doctor Atomic Symphony. Johannes Brahms: Tragic Overture, Op. 81; Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 83. (Markus Groh, p.; David Robertson, cond.)
David Robertson's attempts at bringing John Adams' Doctor Atomic Symphony to the world have been oddly prone to bad luck. Two years back, Robertson lost the chance to conduct the symphony's world premiere when the work wasn't complete in time for the concert. Then, this summer, shortly before Robertson's recording of the symphony was to be released, somebody noticed that the CD covers spelled his name wrong: "Roberston" rather than "Robertson."
The CD—cover duly reprinted—finally made it to listeners' hands at the end of this past July. And Robertson brings the Atomic Symphony to Severance Hall this weekend as part of the Cleveland Orchestra subscription series.
The symphony—a 25-minute distillation of music from Adams' opera about the runup to the Trinity Test—is an intriguing case study of the possibilities and perils of adapting operatic music for orchestral performance. The third movement, for example, reimagines the opera's setting of John Donne's fourteenth Holy Sonnet as a piece for solo trumpet and orchestra. The transfer of the vocal line from tenor to trumpet works quite well, giving the melody a poised, evocative quality rather different from the original. But the agitated sections framing the melody fall flat in a purely instrumental environment. They derive their justification from the opera's plot and from their resonance with the "break, blow, burn" imagery of Donne's poem. Outside those contexts, the sections are too thin to sustain interest on their own.
This is not music of the caliber of Adams' Chamber Symphony or Violin Concerto. But Robertson conducts it with such ferocity that the listener can't fail to experience a bit of an adrenaline rush. The Doctor Atomic Symphony is perhaps best suited to such a setting as this weekend's live concerts. You can sample it once, enjoy both the clamorous bits and Principal Trumpet Michael Sachs' eloquence in his solo role, and not worry whether the work will sustain repeated hearings.
If the Doctor Atomic Symphony escaped bad luck this week, the same could not be said for the Brahms Second Piano Concerto. Pianist Yefim Bronfman fell ill and cancelled his appearance. The performance by last-minute substitute Markus Groh did not begin auspiciously. Both Groh and the orchestra sounded somewhat at sea in a ponderous, untidy account of the first movement that lacked the drama and coherence Robertson had brought to the concert-opening Tragic Overture. But the Allegro appassionato that followed better explained the enthusiastic accolades recorded in Groh's official biography. Beginning with Groh's solo near the start of the trio, one was listening to an altogether different order of pianism. Succeeding movements proved even more attractive. Groh brought an uncanny serenity to the Andante, and the concluding Allegretto grazioso provided a showcase for his technical dexterity and sense of whimsy.
Groh is a young pianist well worth hearing—especially if your interest is in the soft rather than the sulphurous side of Brahms.
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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