The Doctor Atomic Symphony is music for nervous people. It is, after all, drawn from John Adams' 2005 opera about the testing of the first atomic bomb. Referring to the "confrontational brass chords" that recur throughout, concert pianist Jeremy Denk writes in liner notes for a recording of the work that it "is calculated perfectly so that one listens (appropriately) in fear, constantly awaiting the next terrible interruption."
Music director Stefan Sanderling and the Florida Orchestra did themselves proud in playing this challenging 25-minute work for a rather sparse but enthusiastic turnout Friday night in Morsani Hall of the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. The symphony is full of virtuosic effects worthy of a Bernard Herrmann score for a Hitchcock movie. The percussion section is loaded, including thunder sheet, tam-tams, tuned gongs and pounding timpani. The string players are exceedingly busy. Adams' trademark chugging minimalism shows up here and there.
A highlight was principal trumpet Rob Smith's jazzy extended solo, inspired by the vocal part of an aria from the opera, with a text by John Donne: "Batter my heart, three-person'd God." Because the symphony is a series of excerpts from Doctor Atomic, the forward motion of the work occasionally feels a bit static, but the pure sonic splendor is opulent and relentless, a brilliant expression of the 21st century orchestra sound.
There was kind of an opera theme to Friday's concert, because the second half of the program was taken up with Bruckner's Fourth Symphony, which was deeply influenced by the composer's passion for Wagnerian opera. Where Adams' opera is concerned with science and apocalypse, the symphony is all about nature and the 19th century Austrian countryside, exemplified by the sonorous play of the French horn section, led by principal Robert Rearden, especially in the hunting scene of the Scherzo.
The orchestra played the Nowak edition of the 1878-80 version of Bruckner's much-revised symphony.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.
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If you go
The Florida Orchestra program repeats at 8 p.m. today at Mahaffey Theater, St. Petersburg; and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater. $20-$67, with students tickets for $10. (727) 892-3337 or toll-free 1-800-662-7286; floridaorchestra.org.