John Adams’ El Niño is a Very Special Experience

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Adams, El Niño Rosemary Joshua (soprano); Kelley O’Connor (mezzo-soprano); Matthew Rose (bass); Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, Steven Rickards (counter-tenors); Coloma St Cecilia Singers; Trinity Boys’ Choir; London Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 14.12.2013 (CC)

My reactions to the music of John Adams have been remarkably varied, from a performance of Harmonium that reeked of ennui via a strong ENO Doctor Atomic to this, easily the finest Adams piece I have heard.

Adams’ piece is a deliberate opera/oratorio hybrid on the Nativity story, a work for chorus and orchestra for San Francisco and an opera for Paris being the generating commissions. It sets texts from a variety of wide sources as well as including texts and stories from the so-called New Testament Apocrypha, including the tale of Jesus and the Dragons. Perhaps the most notable text is from Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos in an “insert” that in the ’Memorial on Tiateloico” so ‘crushingly – and in remarkably, uncompromisingly modern and astringent language – refers to the confrontation between the Aztecs and Conquistadors in the sixteenth century and parallels this to the Mexican youth revolt of 1968 (and, indeed, Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents). That Adams manages to take such a variety of texts and events into a dual-function form successfully is utterly remarkable. The piece feels cogent, it feels like there is not a note wasted, and it feels emotionally satisfying. Never before have I been able write any of those three statements about a work by Adams.

The first part of El Niño deals with events leading up to the birth of the baby Jesus and the appearance of the Christmas star. The beginning could hardly be more Adams: repeated, almost slashing chords in the strings with a Stravinskian edge. From this characteristic starting point, Adams goes on to explore the Nativity myth in an intensely touching manner. There seems to be something about the multiplicity of sources and the work sitting at the crossroads between musical forms that inspired Adams to provide something so musically cogent. The second part of the work begins with the Three Kings’ arrival, continuing the story in such a manner that the use of a variety of sources never feels incongruent or uncomfortable.

The orchestra was on absolutely top form throughout, triumphing over Adams’ challenges each time. The unanimity of high first violins calls for special comment. Adams uses a trio of counter-tenors – all of them perfectly au fait with Adams’ music, and two of whom took part in the world première of this piece – to act as the Archangel Gabriel in the initial stages of the work. The voices were exquisitely balanced, and capable of a most touching lyricism and impeccable legato lines. Only very occasionally were there any doubts about ensemble.

Kelley O’Connor is a name new to me but her creamy mezzo – very contralto-ish in its extreme lower register – was a delight. She has the range this part demands forAdams freely uses both ends of the register. The experienced Matthew Rose was a commanding bass, particularly in the notoriously difficult ‘Shake the Heavens’, with its clear references to Handel’s Messiah. But it was Rosemary Joshua who truly excelled, radiant from first to last, able to ride over the orchestra and also capable of melting tenderness. The London Philharmonic Choir, too, excelled.

A very special evening.

Colin Clarke



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