John Adams: Doctor Atomic Symphony; Guide to Strange Places

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

LABELS: Nonesuch
WORKS: Doctor Atomic Symphony
PERFORMER: Saint Louis SO/David Robertson
CATALOGUE NO: 07559 799328 8


The Symphony draws material from Adams’s opera Doctor Atomic, set in July 1945 during the hours immediately before the first atom bomb test. The doctor is Robert Oppenheimer, who, having led the Manhattan Project in developing the atom bomb, opposed the hydrogen bomb when he fully realised the dangers of radioactivity.

The Symphony’s movements are headed ‘The Laboratory’, ‘Panic’ and ‘Trinity’: the opening percussive chords suggest a countdown, time accelerating towards the unprecedented explosion, and soon the air is full of rushing string figures, monumental chordal slabs and flaring brass figures recalling the majestic momentum of earlier Adams works like Harmonielehre.

As the long second movement begins, the feeling of strings scuttering out of control, sliced through by blustering, scarcely comforting wind interjections, intensifies. Eventually, the music plunges without pause into an agitated finale never quite calmed by a bleakly serene solo trumpet.

Strange Places was inspired by a book Adams chanced upon in Provence, intriguingly titled A Black Guide to Mysterious Provence. The early stages are filled with bright, eager expectation, but soon unease creeps in, paving the way for loping menace, apprehension and brutal, hammering figures.


David Robertson’s sure guidance encourages the St Louis SO through performances that are as powerful as they are agile. Barry Witherden