Conductor: John Adams
Britten: Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes (Dawn, Sunday Morning, Moonlight and Storm)
Adams: The Dharma at Big Sur - Leila Josefowicz
Stravinsky: Feu d'artifice, Op. 4
Adams: Doctor Atomic Symphony
Last night was probably my last glimpse of John Adams for a while, but at least he would leave me with some wonderful memories. For his last set of performances at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra, he had chosen a semi-eclectic, semi-logical program. The first part would revolve around large expanses of water with chosen excerpts of Britten's Peter Grimes and Adams' Dharma at Big Sur, the later providing us with the pleasure of listening to dedicated modern music advocate Leila Josefowicz. The second part was going to focus on loud and louder human creations with bursting fireworks, courtesy of Stravinsky's Feu d'artifice, and the dreaded atomic bomb, which would conclude the concert with Adams' symphony inspired by his opera Doctor Atomic.
It all started very organically with Peter Grimes' four seascape-inspired interludes, during which the atmospheric quietness of "Sunday Morning" was in sharp contract with the thunderous roar of the final "Storm". Those were beautifully rendered hymns to the opera's ever-present mighty sea, both friend and foe.
The second piece, The Dharma at Big Sur, was written by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles back in 2003 and combines typically Californian elements such as the wild coastal scenery, Jack Kerouac and...an electric violin that would be played by fearlessly adventurous and immensely gifted Leila Josefowicz. Her classical blond beauty refreshingly jazzed up by a flowing psychedelic dress - all the better to invoke freedom-loving California - was only slightly over-shadowed by the incredible instrument she was carrying. Featuring six strings, which would allow it to sound as low as the upper range of the cello, and a partly hollow body, it was looking decidedly odd. But the music it produced was perfectly suited to recreate the irrepressible feeling of shock and awe one feels when confronted for the first time with the wild, rugged landscape of the rocky coast and the majestic, scintillating vastness of the Pacific Ocean (I know. Been there. Saw it. Felt that.). Conjuring up frequent borderline bluesy tones among serene passages before the grand ecstatic finale, it was a truly lovely performance, and everybody clearly loved it.
Stravinsky's Feu d'artifice was short, fun and did shake us up from the elated mood the previous works had put us in.
Before the orchestra proceeded to Doctor Atomic Symphony, the audience got to view a clip of the opera during which hyper-cultivated J. Robert Oppenheimer, impersonated by baritone Gerard Findley, finds himself alone with his monstrous creation, suddenly becomes profoundly disturbed by self-doubt and wishes to be undone and reborn again through one of John Donne's Holy Sonnets "Batter my heart, three person'd God". As the live music took over, the same feelings of worry, hesitation and eventual terror were permeating the score, the violins relentlessly expressing nagging anxiety, the brass loudly speaking of inescapable doom, the final ciaccone by a trumpet becoming the hero's humanistic voice trying to rise above it all. Not very subtle, but you sure could tell that something with huge implications for mankind was at stake, and it was not good news.