John Adams’s Dense, Earnest Oratorio

United StatesUnited States John Adams: Kelley O’Connor, Tamara Mumford (mezzo-sopranos), Jay Hunter Morris (tenor), Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, Nathan Medley (countertenors), San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Symphony Chorus / Grant Gershon (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 16.2.2017. (HS)

The Gospel According to the Other Mary: Jay Hunter Morris (Lazarus), Kelley O’Connor (Mary
Magdalene), Tamara Mumford (Martha) and countertenors Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings
and Nathan Medley (c) Stefan Cohen

John Adams: The Gospel According to the Other Mary

Let’s stipulate from the top that I am a fan of composer John Adams. From early minimalist works to big, complex orchestral and operatic ones, he has established himself as a composer who can excite listeners at all ends of the musical spectrum. His self-described “American vernacular” melds elements of jazz, folk and popular music with denser, more dissonant harmonies, classic structures, and a signature sense of roiling rhythms.

San Francisco Symphony is devoting two weeks to his output in celebration of the composer’s 70th year. First up was The Gospel According to the Other Mary, his oratorio on the biblical Jesus’ final days as seen from the viewpoint of Mary Magdalene and her family. Heard at Wednesday’s opening night in Davies Hall, its nearly three hours makes for a long visit to the concert hall, even with the excellent singers who appeared in 2012 premiere, commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

This is not bloated music, however. If anything, it’s so dense that it can tire an audience. Some of it is brutal, which chased out a significant fraction of the audience by Wednesday’s intermission. The thorny textures in the first half of Act I are tough, but the end of the act, which describes Lazarus’s death and resurrection, is a transcendent setting of “Passover,” a poem of forgiveness, hope and humanity by Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, an Italian writer and chemist. Act II, a telling of the New Testament Passion, strikes a better balance between gritty and celestial, ending not with Jesus’ death but with a nod to the Resurrection.

The cast featured mezzo-sopranos Kelley O’Connor as Mary Magdalene and Tamara Mumford as her sister Martha, and tenor James Hunter Morris as Lazarus, their brother. Three robed and coweled countertenors (Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley) voiced elements of the narrative. Much as in the Gospels, written years after the events they cover by followers of the various apostles, quote Jesus indirectly – we never actually see Jesus. We hear his words sung by the various characters and the chorus.

The warm colors of the mezzo voices showed impressive richness in the low range and marvelous attention to the text. Morris wielded a heroic tenor that brought gravity to his character. His “Passover” was the vocal highlight of the evening. For the most part Adams’s vocal writing tends toward the angular, featuring more awkward skips than grateful arches. The countertenors sing in a much more flowing style, and mostly as a trio – welcome moments when voices actually combine in harmony.

This semi-staged version, directed by Elkhanah Pulitzer, placed the action against a white backdrop above and behind the orchestra, with lighting indicating changes of scene. The singers, in modern dress, played their roles with a real naturalness. The chorus, positioned in darkness above the stage, numbered about half its usual complement, the better to enunciate the words and bring precision.

The libretto, “compiled” by director Peter Sellars – Adams’s longtime collaborator on opera and oratorio – conflates several of the Gospels, not just the one of the apocryphal Mary Magdalene. Inspired by medieval and Renaissance painters that depicted biblical scenes with elements of everyday life, the text adds layers of modern-day elements. These resonate with the biblical, such as portraying Mary Magdalene and her sister, Martha, as political protesters and carers for the homeless.

Similar to Bach’s Passions, which can digress into choral meditations on the meanings of biblical passages, Sellars elaborates on New Testament texts with those from diverse sources: African-American poet and essayist June Jordan, novelist and poet Louise Erdrich, Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos, and the 12th-century mystic Hildegard of Bingen. The result creates something of patchwork, but these texts inspired some of Adams’s most emotionally wrenching music.

Erdrich’s “Orozco Christ,” which pictures an angry Christ chopping down his own cross with an axe, opens Act II with slashing intensity. Then comes a crashingly dissonant orchestral and choral introduction to a Calvary scene that ups the ante of the terror generated by the “Dies Irae” of Verdi’s Requiem. We can feel Jesus’ pain viscerally, albeit at heavy cost to our eardrums. It pays off, contrasting with majestic music in the final scenes at the garden of Jesus’ tomb.

Joanna Carneiro, the music director of the Berkeley Symphony across San Francisco Bay, was originally enlisted to conduct the piece. She knows it well, having earned recognition for leading it at English National Opera in 2014. But pregnant and under doctor’s orders to remain in her home in Lisbon, Portugal, she yielded the baton to Grant Gershon, music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

Though Gershon was involved (as chorus director) in the 2012 premiere, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, I got the sense that he could have exerted greater command of the score. A little more relief from all that density, and more attention to the subterranean shifts of rhythm, might have shaped the musical contrasts to a more pleasing and communicative degree.

That said, amalgamating biblical times with the present, and the inspirations of the modern texts, did create extra resonances with the characters and their messages. The Other Mary proved to be a force to be reckoned with.

Harvey Steiman

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