Review: John Adams Thinks Big in New Telling of the Gospel

Thursday, March 28, 2013 - 02:00 PM

John Adams's 'The Gospel According to the Other Mary' at Lincoln Center John Adams's 'The Gospel According to the Other Mary' at Lincoln Center (Richard Termine)

Though every moment of The Gospel According to the Other Mary was the John Adams I’ve known for decades, the piece sounded like none other.

That's usually the case with each succeeding Adams work, but the leap taken in this near-three-hour Gospel, unveiled on Wednesday at Lincoln Center by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was much larger than usual. It’s Adams’ biggest and most profusely scored work – not just because his stature allows him to compose on this scale, but because his music was out to accommodate a gospel that was hardly limited to “the other Mary.”

Librettist Peter Sellars used the distressed circumstances of Mary Magdalene, her sister Martha and her brother Lazarus as jumping off points to confront oppression of the underprivileged through the ages, fluidly moving in and out of the Biblical story, drawing on texts from the medieval saint Hildegard of Bingen to modern social activist Cesar Chavez. Jesus is still there, more discussed than dramatized, and the piece is effectively narrated by a trio of countertenors with harmonies suggesting an electronically altered single voice.

Two platforms sat at the front of Avery Fisher Hall stage for three dancers and vocal soloists Kelley O’Connor, Tamara Mumford and Russell Thomas. A rear-stage platform showed the Los Angeles Master Chorale in working class garb. No surprise that conductor Gustavo Dudamel’s physical magnetism was dwarfed by the performing apparatus, though having just led the Gospel through a European tour, he held all his forces together with apparent heroism.

Apparent? Though Adams usually composes with such clarity that I was convinced, on first hearing, that The Death of Klinghoffer, El Nino and Doctor Atomic (in its original version) were masterworks, Gospel is too overwhelming, especially choral sections, to allow an overview this soon or to properly parse the performance. To a certain extent, the characters are about discussion philosophy than exploring their interpersonal relationships. Still, O'Connor created moments of considerable vocal gravity, Thomas's Lazarus was particularly good when reliving the horrors of the crucifixion, and Mumford, whose Martha is the most thinly drawn character of all, made you care.

Typical of Adams, any given moment is a confluence of layers – vocal, orchestral, etc – though in this new piece, the layers are more concentrated, eventful and using a more heterogeneous range of sounds. The cimbalom, for one, was part of many unexpected combinations of instruments – all reflecting Adams's marvelous ear for timbre. Unlike past Adams, such layers didn’t even try to lock together. Contrapuntally speaking, the peripheral composer Conlon Nancarrow came to mind as the music seemed to come unhinged in Adams’ portrayal of a world undergoing radical transformation with the sacrifice of Christ.

A percussion-led earthquake effect was a fine example of Adams's new-found incongruity. Wind-instrument glissandos (similar to Harrison Birtwistle’s opera The Last Supper) accompanied miracles. Unrelieved dissonance was everywhere – not abrasively so, but creating a sense of inner disturbance. Adams usually finds resolution in his works, but not here. The music tells you that the story is to be continued, even amid otherworldly harmonies, augmented by electronically-rendered night sounds of frogs and crickets.

The staging had familiar Sellars elements – like semaphoric Tai Chi movements in the chorus – though the front stage platforms didn’t give him enough room. Dancers were so crowded their movement suggested aerobics with anguish. Was one dancer back there dragging another on his back enroute to the crucifixion? Well, let’s have some perspective here: This package was bursting at the seams with its own richness. How often does that happen?


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Comments [5]

One can only wonder if Pamela McGuire lives on the same planet or is intimately related to someone with the company. Her unqualified praise and gushing adoration of everything and every aspect in this monstrosity of a production which drove people from the hall and literally pained others who stayed hoping for some reprieve or glimmer of sophistication and artistic merit not only boggles the mind but begs credulity. Could it be desperate religionist tendencies anxious for modern validation? Only something so fanatic could make such smelly fish palatable --as in mind over matter?
Almost equally sadly, Tommasini and The New York Times have become cheerleaders themselves, collaborators and promoters of the most mediocre and often lame works, so long as they are new, one can only guess why. Notice the recent mindless and unquestioning regurgitation of Peter Gelb's press releases, then extended opportunities given Mr. Gelb to explain any misconceptions and finally a NYT Magazine puff piece profiling and promoting the man himself which was shockingly lacking in journalistic merit or critical analysis and occasionally not even factual. How much does the NYTimes own the Gelb family? All this uncritical and cooperative support of the man that has made the Met facade a billboard and the Met itself a staging company for profitable HD opera movies, no matter how horrendous and tasteless the productions.

Mar. 30 2013 01:02 PM
Pamea McGuire

My husband and I both thought it was magnificent. Adams's music is so engrossing, rich, and even transporting. The staging and libretto by Sellars were inspired. And the singing was equally wonderful, especially the countertenors, Thomas and the chorus. The only critique we could offer is perhaps the need to cut further. Tomassini noted in his NYT review today that the piece has been shortened somewhat from its original version. We found that the first act dragged a bit in the middle and could have used some tightening. In all, we felt very privileged to experience this masterpiece of contemporary music.

Mar. 30 2013 10:17 AM
CoolObserver from New York, New York

OMG, (that's Oh MY God) it was awful! Like some high school pantomime with performing cheerleaders, or woe leaders and grandstand crowds. A dedicated and serious LA Philharmonic played it all with the prerequisite intensity and bombast. The costumes were plain dumb, the choreography was horrendous: stilted, awkward and downright silly at times, with everything except flashing police and disco lights. At least 10% of the audience left at intermission. The countertenors were far more like falsettos, and the sopranos left a great deal to be desired. It took itself so seriously with ostentatious religiosity, and I would say only twice briefly reached any moments of musical felicity. Then there was the "relevant" kitsch of time warp contemporary allusions, just incase you couldn't get the the insistent idea that this had some modern day importance. How it made me long for Barabas! It was the worst thing I have seen and heard in several years, and that includes a lot of Ades, Alden, LaPage and other Eurotrash-style nonsense at the Met. "Semaphoric," no sophomoric. Peter Seller certainly bombed with this one. It was excruciating and bad enough to put me, and I dare say a lot of others, off Adams and Sellars forever.

Mar. 29 2013 10:43 PM
John David from Upper West Side NYC

I appreciate the recognition by Mr. Stearns that one needs more time for listening and reflection before making judgments and giving interpretive slants.
I personally found Sellars' work directing the 'bodies' of the performers often ersatz compared with the music. There were many cliched moments in movement. Many times the movement was too coordinated with the music, like a cheerleader might be leading a rally. Many moments when the superficiality of the movement, the 'staged' nature of it, was transparent. So in my view, the singers didn't have the capacity to present the physical performance they were given. Not subtle enough actors/dancers. The obvious exception was Mr. Thomas, who has a remarkable stage presence and is most often deeply and subtly in character.
Anyway, agree the music is wonderful and calls for deep reflective involvement.

Mar. 29 2013 12:03 PM
Cecily Baker from Brooklyn, NY 11203

I love to listen to Bach, and appreciate the Bach 360 being currently aired. I was introduced to the Brandenburg Concertos by a patient in a hospital where I was a student nurse in the UK. My husband susequently made me a gift of the concertos on LP (Long Playing Records)for my twenty first birthday. I absolutely treasure them, and still have them in my possession,almost 46 years later.

Mar. 29 2013 07:22 AM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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