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on October 6, 2009
I didn't have high hopes for this disc on two counts. One, I am a fair-weather fan of John Adams. I loved his solo piano work Phrygian Gates when it first appeared on vinyl, and yet found myself instinctively compelled - I'm ashamed to say this - to join a chorus of booing at the première of Grand Pianola Music. (At the time, I felt an immediate need for insulin; now, I can admire it as grandly humorous, and rich as a many-layered cake with lots and lots of frosting. I'm not fond of cake.) Two, I am so passionate about the opera Doctor Atomic that I found it hard to accept the idea of some of the music divorced from the opera; something would surely be lacking. Despite a few episodes of langueur, the opera is riveting, majestic and brings out strong emotions.

I'm strangely moved by the power of Doctor Atomic Symphony. For one thing, the Doctor Atomic Symphony is the exemplar of how far Adams has taken `process music' and integrated minimalist moves within the larger landscape of orchestral music. His orchestration summons flavors colorful as Ravel, dark as Mussorgsky, as grand as Mahler.

Guide To Strange Places is another strong Adams work, if somewhat typical and easily identifiable as his work. He again demonstrates a skillful and varied hand at orchestration. It opens with strings sawing and swirling punctuated, rather, propelled by slashes of basses and low horns, then tinkles and trumpets atop. It's a whirligig of movement. Other parts slam chunks of hard material at busy-bird Messiaen-ic strings.

The booklet includes the best-written and informative liner notes, by Jeremy Denk, I've seen in a long while. It presents a blow-by-blow technical and descriptive analysis of both works which any layman can understand. Discussing Guide, he explains moto perpetuo as "a kind of compositional fetish: music that depends upon a constant motoric rhythm." All the musicians of the Saint Louis Orchestra are credited by name. Highly recommended.

[...]
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Imagine yourself on a whirlwind tour around the world's notable geological formations. Everything becomes a blur with no time to savor one place before helter-skelter we are off to another peculiar site. "If it's Tuesday, it must be Belgium" sort of adventure. This is the planned effect of the second work on this album, Guide to Strange Places. The composition is in fact based on Adams discovery of a French tour book translated as A Black Guide to Mysterious Provence, with a chapter on "strange places." This is no Pictures at an Exhibition, and no recurrent theme exists. It is a strange but highly interesting work in its own right. We are uncomfortable with the momentum and the lack of resolution or anything on which to support us: it is another one of Adam's wild rides with rich orchestration.

The album begins with a symphonic suite derived from Adam's opera Doctor Atomic. Most of us of a certain age are familiar with the tragic story of J. [Julius] Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project. The opera and symphony focuses on the period before the first atomic test explosion and all the doubts and fears of what might occur. The music is filled with dread, energy, power, and future repercussions. The liner notes, written by Jeremy Denk, give a thorough musical analysis of both works like some baseball radio narrator. Both compositions are, in essence, tone poems: impressions of imagined places and historic situations. They are adventurous scoring, and give us another Age of Anxiety, mysterious, uncertain, and contemporary.
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on November 10, 2009
Maybe my ears are on wrong. Critics have raved about Doctor Atomic since it came out, and I thought this opera was a clunker. The Doctor Atomic Symphony, while (much) better, still isn't great. It's not really a "Symphony" -- it's a rehash of the best music in the opera. There's little to no development in themes; musical material just kind of comes and goes without care or concern. It might be in 3 (continuous) movements to make it seem like a symphony, but nothing unites the movements -- not even contrasts. This "Symphony" is more like a medley in 3 movements.

The liner notes try really hard to link the music to the opera (triads are atoms! brass chords are explosions!), but I thought the point of the Symphony is to let the music stand on its own?

Having ranted enough, the third movement, "Trinity", is an unexpected pleasure, probably because it focuses on limited material. Here, Adams takes the best aria from the opera and makes it loads better by replacing an overly dramatic singer (you know how opera singers can be...) with a doleful trumpet. It's Adams finally showing his unique genius that's missing from a good chunk of the opera.

Even though the headliner of the disc is the Symphony, I thought Guide to Strange Places stole the show. Why did it take so long to record?? At times there are hints of Messiaen's Turangalila, others parts point the way forward from his works from the late 1990's. Maybe the first few minutes are a perpetual motion as suggested in the liner notes, but the middle section slows down to reveal a cragged, slightly desolate landscape. It never regains that full steam from the introduction, and has that classic, slightly enigmatic ending that Adams writes in so many works, as if there's more to come, but never does.

I've always appreciated Adams's orchestral works more than his operas (with the exception of Nixon in China), so maybe I'm a little biased. I don't think these works are his best to date, but that's ok -- not every disc will be better than the last. The St. Louis Orchestra plays these works so crisply and cleanly, you wonder how they do it.

It's a very good CD. Any John Adams fan will be glad to have it.
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on July 16, 2013
To an extent, I tend to agree with the three-star reviewer of 08/17/09, though I think I liked the music a bit more than he did. Guide to Strange Places is arguably the best portion on the disc, especially the first two-thirds or so. Within the context of Adams' idiom -- and even beyond it, frankly -- it's an engaging work that holds up to multiple hearings. Less able to stand the test of time, perhaps, is the music drawn from Adams' opera Doctor Atomic and served up as a symphony...of sorts. The Trinity section affects me most; indeed, it's the only part that affects me at all. The rest is, to me, not so much repetitious as it is rather bland. So in the end my personal verdict is a split one; the question is whether the disc is half empty or half full. I'm going to go with the former, and give this a three rather than a four.
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on May 1, 2010
I think I like this CD. I have heard other music by John Adams, and I always take a bit of time to adjust to his unique style. I have listened to this CD four or five times now, and am getting acquainted with it. I have not gotten to the point that I go around humming it, or my ears craving it like some music, but that may happen yet. A very unique composer, unique music, and I am sure we will hear more from him.
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on August 17, 2009
I've always liked Adams music for it originality. That "originality" seems to becoming too predictable. I've heard all of this before and the sense of adventure once present seems to have become cliche. Still worthy of a listen but nothing to get excited about.
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on July 5, 2014
Very interesting music - wonderfully played and recorded. I'm still getting used to it, but John Adams is growing on me. He is a FORCE to be reckoned with in 21st century modern classical music. A powerful American voice with much to say. Check out his City Noir recorded by Robertson and the SLSO - also very, very interesting music.
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on December 29, 2014
Fantastic, great brass playing by the St. Louis Symphony!
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