This New Atom Bomb is Dynamite!

Victoria Symphony
Brian Yoon, cello
Bill Linwood, conductor

Alix Goolden Performance Hall
April 7, 2018

“If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendour of the mighty one.”

“I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

By his own admission, it was these two paragraphs from the Bhagavad Gita which ran through the mind of J. Robert Oppenheimer as he witnessed the detonation of the first atomic bomb at the Trinity test site, near Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945. (The translations from the Sanskrit were his own — Oppenheimer was a serious polymath.)

Doctor Atomic, John Adams’ opera concerning the events immediately preceding the test, stops just before the explosion and so the words are not actually sung (or spoken).

The opera was premiered in 2005 and two years later Adams created the Doctor Atomic Symphony out of music from the opera; the symphony was originally in four movements and lasted some three-quarters of an hour, but in 2008 the composer trimmed it down to a continuous work lasting around twenty-five minutes.

It was with a splendidly vital account of the symphony that Bill Linwood and the Victoria Symphony closed their “Explorations” concert on Saturday night.

This pounding, jagged, heavily-syncopated music is clearly far from easy to perform, yet Linwood maintained a tight control over his forces and I imagine you would be hard put to find a better performance anywhere.

Any difficulties I had were with the music itself, not the performance, which featured razor-sharp ensemble and fine solos from trumpeter Ryan Cole and trombonist Brad Howland.

But, although there were undoubtedly some very exciting moments, for me the music fails to cohere and really doesn’t seem to live up to the challenge of its subject. And, one final niggle, the fortissimo drum stroke which ends the piece: is this meant to summon up the sound of the bomb going off? Every recording I have ever heard of an atomic explosion seemed to last an eternity and to sound like nothing so much as the very fabric of the world being rent apart. By comparison, this merely sounded petulant.

However, as Adams is one of the most popular living composers, there is clearly something I’m missing. (But no, it wasn’t singing…)

If the Adams was, not exactly a disappointment, as I had not really, based on my previous experience of his music, been expecting that much, then the remainder of the concert more than made up for it.

The glockenspiel is like the anchovy. Discuss.

What I mean is that, like the anchovy (which, incidentally, I detest) the glockenspiel is hard not to notice and tends to flavour its surroundings out of all proportion to its size. It should, therefore, be used sparingly.

An overuse of the glockenspiel would be my main criticism of Jocelyn Morlock’s Earthfall, which opened the programme.

Otherwise the piece had a lot to recommend it, from the trudging lower strings of its opening via its increasing complexity, texturally and rhythmically, to its more gentle close. If there were, along the way, echoes of Ligeti, Shostakovich and (most of all) Copland, well, that was fine, I like all three.

Linwood directed a marvellous performance in which, typically (and I am still trying to work out how he does this) even in the most rhythmically complex moments the basic pulse was never lost.

The opening section of Linda Bouchard’s Flocking for Orchestra is incredibly busy and at times reminiscent of Pierre Boulez; indeed, for a couple of minutes, I rather suspected we were in for Derive III.

But as the music progressed it grew on me (not that I dislike Boulez) and showed its composer to have a quite distinct personality as well as a fine sonic imagination. I especially enjoyed the slow, pulsating section and the ensuing brass with chattering staccato winds and bowed cymbals.

Nor did the piece outstays its welcome. It was, of course, superbly played and the composer, who was present, seemed suitably pleased with the performance.

The only work on the programme not composed in the twenty-first century was Oskar Morawetz’s Memorial to Martin Luther King, commissioned by Mstislav Rostropovich, first performed in 1975 and being given here to mark the fiftieth anniversary of King’s assassination.

Brian Yoon was the excellent soloist in a work which quite engrossed me with its depth of feeling, from its sombre and ominous opening to the final portentous flourish of the cello over slow orchestral chords. And while the composer’s stated intention of portraying the events of King’s final day may or may not be entirely successful, the sense of catastrophe and the overwhelming grief which follows it are undeniable.

Given the events, the interruption of a quiet passage towards the close by sirens seemed not at all inappropriate.

And there was one passage fairly early on that demonstrated that four decades ago there was at least one Canadian composer who knew how to use a glockenspiel.

All-in-all, and despite my somewhat lukewarm reaction to the “main event” this was a highly enjoyable and brilliantly performed evening’s music.

By Deryk Barker