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Originally published Friday, December 30, 2011 at 5:30 AM

At SSO: Adams' 'Doctor Atomic Symphony'

David Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, guest conducts the Seattle Symphony in performances of John Adams' "Doctor Atomic Symphony," Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor and Stravinsky's "Capriccio" for piano and orchestra — the latter two with Orli Shaham, Robertson's wife, as soloist.

Seattle Times arts writer

Concert preview

Seattle Symphony Orchestra

David Robertson, conductor, Orli Shaham, pianist, 7:30 p.m. Thursday and 8 p.m. Jan. 7, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $17-$110 (206-215-4747 or www.seattlesymphony.org). Intermissionless rush-hour concert (no Stravinsky) at 7 p.m. Jan. 6; $15-$79.
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The first commission deadline that composer John Adams ever missed was for his "Doctor Atomic Symphony." But to conductor David Robertson, who had co-commissioned the piece with the BBC Proms and Carnegie Hall, the delay was "great news." As Robertson explained in a phone interview earlier this month, he knew that the more time Adams spent on the piece, the better it would be.

Robertson will be conducting it with the Seattle Symphony this week.

"Doctor Atomic Symphony," as one might guess, is drawn from Adams' 2005 opera, "Doctor Atomic," about the first nuclear-bomb test in Los Alamos in 1945. But Adams' task in writing the symphony wasn't simply to lift instrumental interludes from the existing opera, as Benjamin Britten did with the "Four Sea Interludes" from "Peter Grimes." Instead, he had to extract musical contents from a complex mesh of instrumental and vocal lines and shape them into an entirely new symphonic creature.

The process proved more difficult than Adams anticipated. An initial 45-minute version of the symphony that debuted at the BBC Proms under Adams' baton got a mixed response. What Seattle audiences will hear is a 23-minute powerhouse of a work that Robertson premiered with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, where he's music director. He and the orchestra also made the first recording of "Doctor Atomic Symphony" for Nonesuch (paired with Adams' wonderfully manic "Guide to Strange Places").

The final revision is, Robertson says, a "leaner, meaner" affair: "It takes all of the atmosphere, foreboding, excitement and concern that entering the atomic age was all about and distills it into pure music without vocals — which is really quite an achievement."

Also on the program: Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor and Stravinsky's "Capriccio" for Piano and Orchestra. Pianist Orli Shaham, Robertson's wife, is the soloist.

"I find that Mozart and Stravinsky complement each other very well," Robertson says. He cites an affinity in their handling of solo instruments in orchestral settings, their sense of rhythm, harmony and tempo, and their gift for shaping melodies out of bits and pieces, all of which can "make for a surprising sense of continuity" when you play them together.

Mozart's D minor concerto also "hooks up" with the foreboding in "Doctor Atomic," Robertson feels. As for the evening's opener — Weber's overture from "Der Freischütz" ("The Marksman"), an opera derived in part from the Faust legend — it echoes a sense in the Adams piece that, as Robertson puts it, "there are things in this world we don't understand, and they're both wonderful and a little scary."

This will be the first time Robertson and Shaham have performed in Seattle together. He acknowledges that when the soloist is your spouse, discussions of musical matters sometimes slip out of a rehearsal-hall context: "Usually it's when you're brushing your teeth, and you have to be careful you understand what the other person is saying."

How did he talk his wife into doing double duty, with two big pieces in a single program?

He wasn't just imposing on the family connection, he says.

"A lot of conductors' egos don't like the soloist to have too much real estate on the program," he explains. But for Robertson and Shaham, the pairing of the two concertos made musical sense. He likens their selection of the pieces to an art curator's aim in arranging paintings on a gallery wall. The idea is to get a conversation started and let you see the works as never before.

Along with her concert career, Shaham is busy on other musical fronts. In January she'll start hosting the radio program, "America's Music Festivals" (www.americasmusicfestivals.org). Another project is "Baby Got Bach," a music series aimed at 3- to 6-year-olds.

As a mother of 4-year-old twins, she found that classical-music offerings for that age group were almost nonexistent. Robertson says her response was: "Well, if there's nothing, I'll make it myself."

Robertson confesses he doesn't know how Shaham juggles her musical commitments while raising their twins. She also, it turns out, is a literal juggler (three balls): a skill she picked up while studying history at Columbia University as a way to keep her hands busy while her mind was occupied.

"But don't worry," Robertson jokes. "The piano stays firmly on the ground."

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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