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

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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?