Have you heard the good news? The Los Angeles Philharmonic have recently formed a partnership with the Barbican, and they were strutting their impress Read More
Have you heard the good news? The Los Angeles Philharmonic have recently formed a partnership with the Barbican, and they were strutting their impressive stuff in London last week for their first International Associate Residency. Also: Christ died for our sins and was reborn.
This second point is, of course, precisely what all passions are about, and John Adams and Peter Sellars’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary, which here received its European première, is indeed a passion. But I was still a little taken aback by the force with which this piece rammed home its religious agenda; whether or not this is deliberate on the part of its creators, it certainly came across as preachier than I had expected, and while musically this was a superb evening, dramatically it seemed very flawed.
The piece focuses on various lesser-publicised incidents from the final weeks of Christ’s life: the raising of Lazarus dominates Act I, and in alongside the traditional passion narrative in Act II is a scene entitled “Arrest of the Women” – not an episode which features prominently in most accounts, but consistent with Sellars’ habit of engaging with female perspectives. This habit is also evident the choice of texts which he selected for the piece: they are by a similar pool of writers to those who informed this work’s precursor, El Niño (2000), which tells the story of Christ’s birth. Here, women including Hildegard of Bingen, Rosario Castellanos and Dorothy Day – the American social activist often associated today with soup kitchens – all figure prominently in the libretto.
What results from this unusual collection of texts and strange reconfiguration of the narrative is a dramatic work constantly at pains to remind its audience of the contemporary relevance of its story. Mary and her sister Martha set up a home for destitute women, forcing a parallel with more recent figures such as Day; the soldiers’ brutality against women is also drawn into parallel with similar recent incidents. The dancers and singers, including the chorus, are all dressed in casual, contemporary clothes. It is all meant, presumably, to add a sense of immediacy, a visceral thrill to it all, but frequently the random shifts through time feel jolting, and the staging slightly primary-school. The awkwardness of the dramatic realisation is not aided by some rather clunky choreography – all impressive, given the little space available at the front of the Barbican Hall stage, and all brilliantly realised by the three dancers (and the singers too), but not inspiring; less still revelatory.
If all of this sounds unappetizing now, it didn’t on Saturday night. I think this is my favourite John Adams score, and the orchestra and chorus, not to mention the soloists, were completely beyond reproach. The first half is especially scintillating (though slightly too long), with a sense of thrust which shows Adams’ real skill as a dramatic artist. The high-point of this half is Lazarus’ aria after Jesus brings him back to life, a phenomenal conglomeration of musical styles with immense energy and a hard, electric pulse. But what was fascinating about this aria was the sinister edge which lurked in the music as Lazarus, seeming possessed, extolled the virtues of his saviour: there was something questioning about Adams’ setting in its relentlessness, something querying, rather than subscribing to, the idea of blind devotion.
Act II was a more demure affair, and not quite as effective for me; it didn’t capture the spiritual highs it seemed to aim for, although there was still much to enjoy in the broader-than-usual orchestral soundworld Adams found throughout. A cimbalom was a prominent addition to the orchestra, and gave a bright, unusual hue to the texture, and the whole evening was a feast of inventive scoring from all the corners of the stage. It was interesting to hear Adams in the pre-concert talk discuss the revisions he had made since this work’s first, unstaged performances last May (read Ted’s review here) – I don’t know how much has been changed, but it’s very clear now that if the work overall is at fault, then Adams is not to blame.
Nor, of course, are the performers, all of whom were sensational. The Los Angeles Philharmonic are almost worth emigrating for, sounding clinical but also full, always immensely sensitive and alert to a reserved but incisive Gustavo Dudamel. The LA Master Chorale are the best chorus I have ever heard, by some distance, and they did utter wonders in this usually tough acoustic. And the soloists shone as well, with countertenors Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley spotless and sensuous as the trio of narrators, and mezzos Kelley O’Connor and Tamara Mumford both compelling in the highs and (many) lows of their vocal lines. Heldentenor Russell Thomas was a magnificently massive-voiced Lazarus, stealing the show in Act I to the effect that it was a shame that he wasn’t given as much to do in Act II.
But what can anyone have Lazarus do during the crucifixion? For all its musical brilliance, this was an evening hobbled by its dramatic structure. My star rating is an average: the music deserves more; the drama less.
A John Adams ‘Passion’ staged by his regular collaborator Peter Sellars sounded promising, even if the latter was going to ‘craft’ the libretto. As Se Read More
A John Adams ‘Passion’ staged by his regular collaborator Peter Sellars sounded promising, even if the latter was going to ‘craft’ the libretto. As Sellars’s synopsis made clear, The Gospel According to the Other Mary would juxtapose Biblical events with some quintessentially Californian struggles.
The Bethany where Christ raised the dead Lazarus would be twinned with the Bethany where oppressed farm-workers were beaten up by police, and where the jail resounded with the shrieks of a woman in the throes of drug-withdrawal – which is how the opening scene began. Creative liberties would be taken with the original story: in place of the ‘reformed prostitute’ version of Mary Magdalene, this Mary and her sister Martha would be social activists, while Lazarus would be their brother, thus allowing Sellars to weave it all into a neatly feminist family fable.
The Barbican hall was inventively reconfigured: while the Los Angeles Master Chorale occupied a platform at the rear, the central part was filled with the LA Philharmonic, and a dais at the front served as the acting space, with Gustavo Dudamel’s podium squeezed in at one side. There were uncomfortable disjunctions in the drama, however, as well as between the score and its libretto.
Sellars’s clumsy blend of cod-Biblical and contemporary speech was interlarded with Spanish, Latin, and American poetry; although the orchestral and choral accompaniment had the graceful repetitiveness one associates with Adams, the soloists’ melodic mode was relentlessly jagged and atonal.
Constant doubling meant that one didn’t know who was who, what was going on, or why everyone on stage seemed so desperately worked up. Kelley O’Connor and Tamara Mumford (the mezzos incarnating Mary and Martha), plus Russell Thomas’s Lazarus, plus the three countertenors incarnating Jesus (an interesting touch which worked well), all sang heroically, but this just sharpened the general sense of wasted effort.
If the first act was dismal, the second was a sort of redemption, as Adams settled into the tonal mode which suits him best, and Sellars began to work his usual magic with moving, living flesh, Mary and Lazarus each being shadowed by a dancer. There was visceral horror in the procession to Golgotha, and cathartic wonder (lit by a musical radiance) as the reality of the Resurrection sank in. And it was good to see superstar Dudamel humbly doing a complex technical job. Somehow I don’t think this misshapen piece will join the roster of Adams classics.
When the Los Angeles Philharmonic made the Venezuelan phenomenon Gustavo Dudamel its music director there were inevitable accusations that the orchest Read More
When the Los Angeles Philharmonic made the Venezuelan phenomenon Gustavo Dudamel its music director there were inevitable accusations that the orchestra had plumped for pizzazz over profundity. But the dazzling four-day residency of concerts and workshops that the LA Philharmonic and its young maestro have just completed at the Barbican suggested, in the most contemporary way, that pizzazz and profundity are not mutually exclusive.
The orchestra sounds in fantastic shape: translucent yet punchy; precise but full of players who know how to phrase beautifully. Dudamel was the very reverse of attention-seeking, yet his control was admirable. And, most impressive of all, the Angelenos had the vision and bravery to bring two entire concerts of pieces composed in the past six years — and deliver them with irresistible finesse and fervour.
This was especially true of Saturday’s epic offering: the European premiere of The Gospel According to the Other Mary, which reunites the composer John Adams with, as librettist and stage director, his old maverick chum Peter Sellars. And this massively ambitious oratorio certainly was staged. At the front the solo singers closely interacted with three marvellously lithe dancers, while behind the orchestra the excellent Los Angeles Master Chorale not only sang from memory but added their own strikingly angular unison gestures (a Sellars trademark).
As the name suggests, this is the story of Christ’s arrest, crucifixion and resurrection told from the viewpoint of women — Mary Magdalene and her more pragmatic sister Martha (Kelley O’Connor and Tamara Mumford — both remarkable, with Mumford hitting some extraordinary baritone-register notes). A trio of countertenors narrates most of the story in astringent close harmony, and a terrifically intense tenor (Russell Thomas) sings the resurrected Lazarus.
But nothing by Adams and Sellars is without present-day allusions, and here the familiar Passion narrative is spliced with protest poetry and evocations of modern ghettos and rebellions. Opinions will differ about the cogency or necessity of that. But what’s beyond question is the richness and variety of Adams’s masterly score: more than two hours of music ranging from passages of ethereal beauty to savage, pulsing onslaughts, and all expertly tailored to the drama’s meaning and mood.
It says something for the new pieces heard in Thursday’s concert that they weren’t entirely eclipsed by Adams’s vast score. Joseph Pereira’s Percussion Concerto, featuring the composer as soloist (he is the orchestra’s timpanist), was frantically virtuosic, not just in its demands on the central player but in the way that his timbres and rhythms were transfigured for a chamber orchestra — though the sepulchral slow movement seemed to drift.
Nothing drifted, however, in Unsuk Chin’s new chamber-orchestra piece Graffiti. Despite its name, it is ultra-sophisticated, many-layered and rooted in the Central European complexities of Ligeti and Lutoslawski. It also sounds fiendish to play, yet these players seemed to be having a ball. How exhilarating to hear new music championed with such exuberance.
In a fusion of past and present, composer John Adams and director Peter Sellars mix New Testament excerpts about Mary Magdalene’s life with abstract, Read More
In a fusion of past and present, composer John Adams and director Peter Sellars mix New Testament excerpts about Mary Magdalene’s life with abstract, often obscure musings from sundry sources
Since their first collaboration on the opera Nixon in China, composer John Adams and director Peter Sellars have not shied away from difficult subjects, and there were high hopes for this European premiere of their latest project, The Gospel According to the Other Mary. Like other works they’ve produced, it’s not quite opera, not quite oratorio. Sellars provided the text, mixing New Testament excerpts about Mary Magdalene’s life with abstract, often obscure musings from sundry sources, Hildegard of Bingen to Primo Levi.
In typical Sellars style, the story shuttles between biblical episodes and a parallel present, in which Mary is a political activist. Jesus does not appear; his life and death is more narrated (by three falsetto Narrators) than presented “live”. It would work without staging; unfortunately Sellars provided one anyway, with Eighties disco calisthenics for three dancers and a combination of semaphore and bookies’ tic-tac for the singers.
Adams’s treatment of the dense scenario consists mostly of undulating recitatives over an intricately woven orchestration studded with glittering details. The vocal lines straddle opera and musical theatre, with odd phrases repeated to show this is no mere sing-song setting. In moments of high intensity, the singers delivered, Russell Thomas’s Lazarus singing as if to raise the dead. As Mary and Martha, Kelley O’Connor and Tamara Mumford were hardly less committed.
This was the centrepiece of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Barbican residency, and Gustavo Dudamel conducted with assurance. Although his players and chorus responded with blazing enthusiasm, Adams’s Gospel failed to convert this listener. Others disagreed with noisy enthusiasm.
The European premiere of John Adams' latest large-scale choral work is the centrepiece of Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Barbican Read More
The European premiere of John Adams' latest large-scale choral work is the centrepiece of Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Barbican residency. First performed in Los Angeles in May last year and co-commissioned by the Barbican, The Gospel According to the Other Mary is a "passion oratorio", consciously designed by Adams and his librettist/director Peter Sellars as a companion piece to El Niño, their nativity oratorio which premiered in 2000. Like that work (and, arguably, Adams' operas The Death of Klinghoffer and Doctor Atomic too), The Other Mary hovers somewhere between opera and concert work, and can be performed either fully staged or in a concert hall; here Sellars staged it in the main Barbican hall.
Like El Niño too, the text is a patchwork of extracts – from both old and new testaments, Hildegard of Bingen, and a variety of 20th-century writers, ranging from Primo Levi to June Jordan. The Other Mary is, Sellars has said, an attempt to "set the passion story in the eternal present, in the tradition of sacred art", so the narrative constantly merges the biblical past and the world today. The story unfolds from the point of view of Mary Magdalene, her sister Martha and brother Lazarus, who seem to commute between the two time frames, and so create parallels between the story of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, and real 20th- and 21st-century events such as Carlos Chavez's campaign for farm workers' rights in Calfornia and the revolutions of the Arab spring.
It's ambitious, frequently tendentious and, at two and quarter hours, perhaps too long. Sellars' staging, mostly on a platform in front of the orchestra, with the chorus, principal singers and dancers wearing a mix of work clothes and flowery trousers and t-shirts, seems desperately earnest and contrived. But what saves the whole project from collapsing into sanctimonious attitudinising is Adams' remarkable score, which contains some of his finest music for many years. For whatever reason, the subject matter seems to have unlocked a whole new expression range in his writing; there's a sinewy angularity to his melodic lines, a crisp astringency to his harmonies, that have only been hinted at before, while his ear for sonority, with a cimbalom adding an extra tang to the textures this time, is as sure as ever.
Bach's passions are inevitably one model for what Adams and Sellars have done; Leonard Bernstein's Mass is perhaps another less obvious one. The narrative function of the passion evangelist is taken over by three countertenors (Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley here), either singing solo or as a raptly entwined trio; Mary is a mezzo (Kelley O'Connor), Martha a contralto (Tamara Mumford) and Lazarus a tenor (Russell Thomas). It's the tenor who has the nearest thing to a setpiece number in the whole work, near the end of the first act, when he sings of the Passover ritual, in a way that irresistibly recalls the similar catharsis of the setting of Donne's Batter My Heart at a similar moment in the scheme of Doctor Atomic.
If the urgent choral writing seems to derive directly from the turba choruses in the Bach passions, Adams injects them with an jagged, irresistible energy of his own, right from the opening moments of the work. They were superbly delivered by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, but then everything about the performance under Dudamel was vivid and immaculate; musically it was a remarkable occasion.
'The Gospel According to the Other Mary' by John Adams, played by the LA Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel, had a puzzling start but by the end achie Read More
'The Gospel According to the Other Mary' by John Adams, played by the LA Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel, had a puzzling start but by the end achieved a dignified simplicity, says Ivan Hewett.
In The Gospel According to the Other Mary, the “other Mary” is the despised one: Mary Magdalene, the penitent “fallen woman”. Peter Sellars, librettist of this new oratorio performed by the LA Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel, has given this retelling of the Passion story a political twist. Here Mary has become a fighter for the poor, in some undefined Middle-Eastern slum. She runs a hostel for homeless women with her sister Martha. She’s feisty, but wounded by memories of her father’s abuse of her. One day, the two sisters welcome Christ into their home. He raises their brother Lazarus from the dead, and is revealed to be a revolutionary. Then the police come knocking.
The story may concern poverty, but the means are anything but humble. Composer John Adams employs a large orchestra, rich with sounds of bass guitar and cimbalom. There’s a chorus, who sometimes are detached observers, sometimes angry participants.
Three dancers on the tiny raised stage represent many things; the spirit of the reviving Lazarus, Christ’s agonised trudge to Golgotha. Three countertenors narrate. As for Christ Himself, he is everywhere and nowhere, fleetingly hinted at in a dancer’s body, or the counter-tenors’ beautifully drooping tones.
One can only salute the care, attention to detail and sincere intentions that went into the oratorio’s making. Unfortunately, as with other pieces from the Adams/Sellars workshop, this one suffers from an excess of good intentions. Sellars can’t resist loading the text with a superfluity of poetic and political reference. This often thwarted our natural urge to empathise, as we stopped to puzzle over yet another obscure line flashed up on the surtitles. A touch of humble straightforwardness might have been helpful in a tale that hymns the virtues of the poor.
And yet in the second half, as Christ is arrested, crucified and interred in the Sepulchre, everything came together. The impassioned, dignified performances of Kelley O’Connor as Mary and Tamara Mumford as Martha were a marvel. But what lifted the piece towards the heights was Adams’s sombre, many-layered music. At the end, as Mary recognises the risen Christ, it finally achieved the rich simplicity it had been searching for.