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Adams’ World Premiere Concludes LA Phil Season

Los Angeles
Walt Disney Concert Hall
05/31/2012 -  & June 1*, 2, 3, 2012
John Adams: The Gospel According to the Other Mary (World premiere)
Kelley O’Connor (Mary Magdalene), Tamara Mumford (Martha), Russell Thomas (Lazarus), Daniel Bubeck (Narrator), Brian Cummings, Nathan Medley (Narrators)
Los Angeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon (Music Director), Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Gustavo Dudamel (Conductor)

J. Adams (© Deborah O’Grady)

For many composers, the Passion Play seems a daunting task to be completed as a statement of their artistic language and spiritual bearings. Handel's Messiah is famously considered a work of fervent genius, supposedly created over just two weeks. For many, it is considered the very essence of Baroque music. As a more recent example, one need look back as recently as Osvaldo Golijov's celebrated and defining La Pasíon según San Marcos. For John Adams, perhaps America's busiest and most consistent composer of late, the stature of the Passion Play as a musical statement was certainly a beckoning call to apply his talents. The result is a piece that is not only predictably unique, but shatteringly vivid, both dramatically and musically.

The libretto was compiled from various sources by Adams' longtime collaborator, Peter Sellars with texts by Dorothy Day, Louise Erdrich, Primo Levi, Rosario Castellanos, June Jordan, Hildegard von Bingen and Rubén Darío. The diverse sources, many of them modern compared to the biblical texts in the piece, weave a narrative of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection from the vantage point of the "Other Mary," Mary Magdalene. Mary's sister Martha and brother Lazarus share a large part of the story. The actual narrating is performed by three countertenors whose words are from the Bible and propel the narrative. Lazarus, Mary, and Martha sing predominantly modern texts. While this style of juxtaposition is not new for Adams and Sellars, the wild denseness of musical expression is notable. With a work like this, it is tempting to call Adams’ musical language “maturing,” but given that, for decades now, his works—particularly Nixon in China—have maintained a prominent place in the standard repertoire, “maturing” doesn’t quite fit. In many ways, The Gospel According to the Other Mary is a culmination of his stylistic explorations and the most affecting musical, poetic and dramatic amalgam yet created by this team.

The most satisfying music of the evening was often that written just for the orchestra. Adams employs a battery of gongs, cymbals, drums and, most extensively, a cimbalom. The orchestra would often provide the interludes, serving as dramatic set changes between events or thoughts, commenting on the biblical texts sung by the narrators with a visceral impact. The music was dark and dissonant, but appropriately so. The passages that were most satisfying were those that were drawn out and given ample space to breathe and create the other-worldly atmosphere required of the texts. The most exemplary and successful movement of the piece is the third scene (also the longest), titled “Lazarus.” It tells of the death of Lazarus and Jesus raising him from the dead. The countertenors provide the narrative, and we hear, in gut-wrenching clarity, the despair of the two sisters. The actual resurrection is only heard in the orchestra. Adams’ trademark minimalist language was nowhere to be found at this point, and the tangibility of death and rotting flesh is portrayed by bowed cymbals, a bass guitar and double basses. It was similar to a later scene that aurally created the setting for the crucifixion at Golgotha in the second act. Adams’ orchestral writing for dramatic purposes here is expansive and sparse, not gimmicky, but with discernible direction. The great power of this piece often rests in that mastery, as in the dawn of the Resurrection day.

The vocal writing is absolutely daunting and almost as daring as the orchestral writing in its complexity and range. The musicianship required, and provided, would have made many seasoned singers shy away. Thankfully, as Adams describes it, this may be the most ideal cast that he’s ever had for a world premiere. Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, a favorite of Los Angeles and Adams, performed the piercing Mary Magdalene with unreal dramatic involvement. Beyond that, the resilience and foundation of her voice, supported by an exemplary technique, made for a potent and tour de force vocal performance. There was no poem out of her grasp, or vocal leap, of which there were countless, that wasn’t spot-on in pitch. Tamara Mumford as Martha was equally compelling, but perhaps appropriately more matronly. Her resonant contralto voice is a rare and beautiful instrument; her stature was compelling and sympathetic.

Russell Thomas’ Lazarus may have been the most vocally demanding part in its range of color, with the two most memorable arias of the evening belonging to him. In scene four, he sings a fierce, declamatory arioso about being risen from the dead, and in scene five, a lyric ballad of inspiring beauty regarding Passover. Thomas' voice was up to the challenge. His bright, even, and lyric tenor was remarkably powerful. Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, and Nathan Medley sang with impeccable intonation and were sympathetically involved in the narrative. Grant Gershon’s 48-member Los Angeles Master Chorale was dramatically alert and textually driven as usual, providing a fine addition to the piece. Gustavo Dudamel’s reduced orchestra was keenly attentive and in good hands with the well-prepared maestro, whose musicianship with and enthusiasm for new music is a strength of this organization.

At times, the journey seemed like one of attrition. Maybe it was the 8:00 start time, but the three hour evening seemed too demanding for many patrons, many of whom left during the intermission, and even more still throughout the second act. In some ways it is hard to blame them for doing so. As a season-closing concert, this may not have been what many had expected and the demands on the listener may have been more than many could provide. It is a work that offers a new way into these iconic events and stories and for us, in present times, a way in that is almost too real. It is as if the listener is finally given a glimpse of how the crucifixion and resurrection sounded two thousand years ago. Exaggeration? Perhaps, but most importantly, in those three hours in that space, those events were absolutely knowable.

Matthew Richard Martinez



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