OVERNIGHT REVIEW: L.A. Phil presents world premiere of John Adams’ oratorio “The Gospel According to the Other Mary”

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
News

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Los Angeles
Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor

John Adams: The Gospel
According to the Other Mary

Friday, June 1, 2012 Walt Disney Concert Hall

Next performances: Today and tomorrow at 2 p.m.

Information: www.laphil.com

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At age 65, John Adams is at the stage of his compositional
life where he thinks big … very big. In 2000, Adams and Peter Sellars — with
whom he has collaborated as librettist and stage director for 28 years –
created El Nio, a staged oratorio
based on the nativity of Jesus and inspired by Handel’s Messiah. Now Adams and Sellars have turned to the end of the life
of Christ for what is, in effect, the bookend to El Nio. This weekend at Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Los Angeles
Philharmonic, Los Angeles Master Chorale and six soloists — all under the
baton of Gustavo Dudamel — are presenting the world premiere of The Gospel According to the Other Mary, a
work inspired, in part, by the Passions
of Johann Sebastian Bach.

 

This is a very important work, stunningly performed by all
forces last night. It’s also very long — almost exactly three hours from
downbeat to conclusion — and it’s just in its embryonic form. Next March,
Sellars will direct a staged version of the oratorio first in Los Angeles and
then on tour in London, Lucerne, Paris, and New York City. Adams was reportedly
very late in delivering the score to the Phil; with 10 more months and four
performances to evaluate, it’s interesting to speculate how — or if — Adams and
Sellars will make changes prior to next spring.

 

In the preconcert lecture, Sellars explained that The Gospel According to the Other Mary
is a Passion story framed by two resurrections. It begins with the story of
Jesus raising Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, a week before the events
that would lead to the Last Supper with Jesus’ disciples. The oratorio
continues with Jesus’ crucifixion and — unlike Bach — concludes with Jesus’
resurrection.

 

The title of the work refers to Mary Magdalene, which
theologically presents problems. Most scholars do not believe that Mary
Magdalene is the Mary mentioned in the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:
38-42) nor in the episode of the raising of Lazarus (John 1: 1-44). There were
probably several women named Mary who were part of Jesus’ entourage, of whom
Mary Magdalene was certainly one of the most prominent. She provided financial
support to Jesus, traveled with him, was at the foot of the cross when Jesus
was crucified, was present at his burial and was one of the first people to arrive
at the tomb on Easter morning and discover Jesus had risen.

 

However, from oratorio’s perspective, the decision by Adams
and Sellars to conflate Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany makes stylistic
sense as does the decision to use Lazarus during the second act in the role
that Bach assigned to the Evangelist, or storyteller, in his Passions. Both decisions simplified the
libretto and having Mary as a tortured soul provided the bridge to the decision
to create the work in multiple layers.

 

In addition to the “traditional” Passion story, Adams and
Sellars set three of the “scenes” in contemporary times, beginning Act I with
what they called a “jailhouse of hospitality” and inserting two scenes into Act
II set amid the Csar Chavez-led farm work protests in the Salinas Valley. As
Adams noted before the concert, Jesus was often surrounded by the very poor and
hopeless, “those who we may give a buck or two on the street and then expect
someone else will solve the problem” as Sellars said, and those upon whose backs
governments try to balance today’s budgets, added Adams.

 

In addition to Old and New Testament sources, Sellars used
texts from American social activist Dorothy Day, novelist and poet Louise
Erdrich, Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos, and 12th century mystic
and abbess Hildegard of Bingen and others to create the multiple “planes” of
the libretto.

 

Whether these “planes” added significantly to the overall
effect can’t be fully appreciated on a single hearing. For Christians, the
Passion story may have been enough; for non-Christians, the other stories may
have been crucial. I didn’t think that Adams’ best writing came in the
non-Biblical sections and, as the person who accompanied me noted, we wondered
whether the context of these contemporary scenes will make as much sense in
Europe or even New York as they do in California.

 

Except for a typically large percussion section (but no
timpani), Adams scored the work for a modest-sized orchestra, which was a good
thing because even with reduced forces, the Phil musicians occasionally swamped
the soloists. Among the instruments were a cimbalon, an ancient Hungarian
stringed instrument, and a bass guitar.

 

There were several riveting orchestral sections, including
the death of Lazarus, Jesus’ three days in the tomb, and dawn breaking on
Resurrection morning. Especially considering how little time the Phil had to
prepare this complex work, the orchestra sounded remarkably cohesive and played
formidably and Dudamel (who used a score) seemed to grow in confidence as the
performance progressed.

 

Ultimately, however, this piece soared on its vocalists,
beginning with 48 members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, which sang with
rhythmic precision, delivered impressive diction (the projected supertitles
often weren’t necessary when the Chorale was singing), and was mesmerizingly
ferocious in the Golgatha mob scene.

 

The soloists were exemplary, particularly because Adams
pushed the extremes of each singer’s vocal range. Adams wrote the role of Mary
Magdalene for mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor and she brought a riveting,
luminous performance to the complex role that included manic mood swings from
morbid anger to compassion. Contralto Tamara Mumford’s rich tone was perfectly
cast for the role of Martha, and tenor Russell Thomas sang the role of Lazarus
with explosive fervor.

 

The person of Jesus never actually appears in the oratorio;
instead his lines are apportioned among the chorus, soloist and — in particular
– a trio of counter tenors (Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley)
who often intoned their lines together in close but not displeasing harmonies.

 

Reports are that the original commission called for a
90-minute piece; last night’s performance ran 149. Somewhere in between the two
might have made for a tighter, more focused piece. Nonetheless, it’s too bad
that so many people bailed at intermission  (somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of the audience
by my admittedly unscientific count). If you’re coming this afternoon or
tomorrow, be forewarned about the length but do stay to the end for what is
clearly a major 21st century work.  It will be fascinating to see how the staged version looks
and sounds, but for now this is something special in its own right.

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Hemidemisemiquavers:

The preconcert lecture, with Adams and Sellars conversing
with Chad Smith, the Phil’s vice president of artistic planning, provided
plenty of background on the process of constructing The Gospel According to the Other Mary. It also included a hilarious
metaphor for the collaborative process; I won’t spoil the fun in this post but
if it doesn’t appear in either today’s or tomorrow’s lecture, email me and I’ll
pass it along.

The Phil helpfully provided both printed texts and
projected supertitles. Although Thomas May’s program notes did outline how the
non-Biblical sources were used, it would have been helpful for those reading
the insert in the hall or later at home to have the sources identified as they
appeared.

The singers appeared to be wearing body mics and there
were speakers set up on both sides of the stage but I didn’t sense any
significant reinforcement, which I suppose it a good thing.

The orchestra and Dudamel were dressed in all black with
no coats for the men, similar to what they wore for Don Giovanni.

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(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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