Doctor Atomic

November 27, 2018 § Leave a comment

I was promised Rachmaninoff.

His most difficult work (Piano Concerto No. 3, nicknamed, she claimed, “the Rach”), played by Denis Kozhukhin “with precision and poetry” despite its difficulty.

She hooked me. I heard the intro in my car as I arrived home, Kozhukhin talking about how it was the first piano concerto he heard as a kid. How he tried to learn to play it before even learning scales, a little boy grasping at a star far beyond his reach.

Because it enthralled him. 

And I, in turn, was enthralled, waiting for it to begin. Prepared to sit in my car, in my garage, in the cold, to listen.

But she tricked me, that wily Alison Young. Rope-a-doped me, luring me with promises of the Rach and suckerpunching me with, of all things, Gershwin.

An American in Paris, no less.

I do not like Gershwin. To some that’s blasphemy, I know, but I don’t. His show tunes, sure, but not his symphonic work. And especially not An American in Paris.

So I turned off the radio, went in out of the cold, and since my stereo died many months ago, downloaded the WGUC app so I could listen to Rachmaninoff on my small but surprisingly powerful Bluetooth speaker.

An American was still in Paris, so I called my mom, talked to her for a bit, and by the time I hung up, Gershwin was ending.

Once again, however, Alison Young tricked me; instead of Rachmaninoff, she played a symphony by John Adams (no, not the Founding Father and second US President; the other John Adams).

This symphony picked up on themes from Adams’ opera of the same name, but was not part of that opera. It was a standalone work.

It was called Doctor Atomic.

The opera is about the scientists who invented the atomic bomb during World War II. Oppenheimer, in particular.

I settled onto the couch with a bowl of Pineapple Chicken and a Guinness (because I’m eating healthy but not going overboard with it, don’t be crazy) to listen to Adams nuke the residue of Gershwin from my mind.

Doctor Atomic perfectly fits the subject that inspired it. Dark, foreboding, explosive. It makes musicians pound at their instruments at times. It broods. It paces in the dark of night. It cries out that it has become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.

Listening to it roll up and out of the speaker, I experienced one of those rare moments of joy at finding something completely unexpected and startlingly powerful.

And then, after the last deep notes faded and some interstitial commentary from Alison Young, came the Rachmaninoff.

It was as complex and poetic and beautiful as promised, and the perfect companion to the Adams piece. Although I don’t play the piano, I nevertheless could hear why it was such a challenging piece to perform. I found myself wishing I had been in the audience, close enough to see Kozhukhin’s fingers dance wildly across the keys.

But now, two hours later, I’m still thinking about Doctor Atomic.


The Doctors Atomic: Oppenheimer, Poggenburg, Kurtz, Milburn, and Meyer

The Doctors Atomic: Oppenheimer, Poggenburg, Kurtz, Milburn, and Meyer

(Photo Credit: The Library of Congress)

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