Album Spotlight: John Adams's Gospel a Pointed Social Critique

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It’s passion season in classical music and while J.S. Bach has a pride of place with his St. Matthew and St. John Passions, contemporary composers have periodically expanded on (or departed from) the Bachian model, including Tan Dun, Sofia Gubaidulina, Osvaldo Golijov and Wolfgang Rihm.

Having previously waded into biblical subject matter with the 2000 nativity oratorio, El Nino, John Adams says he wanted to explore the final days of Jesus’s life in the Passion story. He approached the Los Angeles Philharmonic and its conductor Gustavo Dudamel, which led to a commission for The Gospel According to the Other Mary, a nearly three-hour score that premiered in May 2012, toured last year, and is now available as a 2-CD set on Deutsche Grammophon.

Adams and his librettist, Peter Sellars, focus not on the Jesus' suffering but on the hard-knock circumstances of his follower, Mary Magdalene, as well as her sister Martha and her brother Lazarus. The work becomes a stepping-off point to confront oppression of the underprivileged through the ages, with the biblical story fluidly cross-cutting with scenes of modern life.

The piece opens as the two women have been jailed for protesting on behalf of the poor, while a woman in the adjacent prison cell is dealing with heroin addiction. Jesus is not just in Bethlehem but also on the streets of Los Angeles treating people with AIDS and tuberculosis. Adams said that Mary “could have been a woman who grew up in a trailer park in Tennessee and abused like her father and is seeking salvation.”

At a public Times Talk on Saturday night hosted by New York Times reporter Michael Cooper, Adams, seated beside Dudamel, emphasized how contemporary social issues reinforced biblical parallels in the piece. “What drew me to this story was that a crucifixion is a kind of execution,” Adams told Cooper. “Executions are something we still argue about in our time. I wanted to bring issues like homelessness and charity and generosity home.”

“Ironically, I composed this work in the run-up to the [2012] Presidential election,” Adams added, “and you’d watch on cable news people beating up on the poor, saying how food stamps were a scam and welfare is the worst thing in the world. I thought things haven’t changed in the last 2000 years."

Adams has long been known for the topical bent of his works -- from Nixon in China to The Death of Klinghoffer -- but he cites historical precedent for the Gospel: Artists have often placed Passion stories in vivid contemporary contexts. Medieval Gospel story paintings, for instance, were often set in a European village that mirrored the setting of the artist’s hometown. Yet music could go even further in mingling the historical past and present in a nonlinear fashion.

The Gospel’s libretto, in Spanish and Latin, is stitched together from a variety of literary sources including Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos, medieval composer Hildegard of Bingen and Native American poet and novelist Louise Erdrich. As in El Nino, Adams and Sellars used the voices of Hispanic women prominently because “there’s something so open about them,” according to the composer (the Los Angeles Master Chorale has a large role). There are also three countertenors who serve as a narrator or voice behind the characters. The orchestra too is a kind of character, and Adams deploys many striking colors through the use of cimbalom, electric bass and various combinations.

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

Critics have called attention to the work's broad, kaleidoscopic canvas, albeit with some reservations. David Patrick Stearns, reviewing the New York premiere for Operavore, said that the piece was too overwhelming to fully assess on first listen. “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,” he wrote. “This package was bursting at the seams with its own richness.”

The New York Times called the piece “big and ambitious, churning but ultimately limp, with moments of beauty among the longueurs.” And the Chicago Tribune's John von Rhein enthused: "what a gripping, wrenching, ultimately moving achievement 'The Other Mary' is. Here is some of the most varied and masterful music Adams has composed to date.”

Clips of the The Gospel According to the Other Mary can be found on Deutsche Grammophon’s website.