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Even composers need to work their assets hard. After spending a year or two composing a full-scale opera it makes good business sense to repackage selected music from the score for the concert hall.
By coincidence the BBC Proms have just offered two new pieces derived from operas on consecutive nights. On Monday, we had the first London performance of a 20-minute suite from Thomas Adès’s Powder her Face, his chamber opera based on the louche life of the Duchess of Argyll. Hearing the singers’ words in the opera has proved so difficult that getting rid of the voices altogether is really quite a nifty idea.
The suite works very well. The three movements recapture the quick-witted pace of the opera, blending its 1930s dance rhythms with a whiff of decadence. It should make a brilliant opener in a good performance, but here the conductor Christoph von Dohnányi and the Philharmonia Orchestra seemed barely to get a grip on it, like a skater sliding frantically across the ice. The composer sat with his head in his hands for much of the time, which was not an encouraging sign.
On Tuesday it was the turn of John Adams, who conducted his 40-minute Doctor Atomic Symphony, a BBC co-commission that was getting its premiere at the Proms. This symphony is made of sterner stuff, as it draws on the story of the development of the first atomic bomb and is framed by strong movements depicting the magnitude of the historical events.
In between, a long, loving scene between J. Robert Oppenheimer and his wife takes us into the bedroom, where they settle down in a mood of languorous ecstasy worthy of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé.
There is much that is vivid, beautiful and sensuous in the music – certainly enough to create a purely orchestral work, although not perhaps a symphony. The shape of the piece is more like a romantic tone poem that occasionally wanders off into unrelated parts of the story.
This performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra was not very convincing, either – the players sounded nervous under Adams’s baton – and the premiere fell short of the mega-explosive success that Doctor Atomic might have had in mind.