For their season finale, the Los Angeles Philharmonic ordered up a world premiere of a major new work from John Adams, their Creative Chair and one of the most prominent American composers currently living. Once again, the orchestra was thinking big and taking risks.
You’ve gotta appreciate their moxy. Audentes fortuna juvat — “Fortune favors the bold” — as the old saying goes, and the orchestra has been both bold and fortunate in their many adventurous successes.
What Mr. Adams gave them was The Gospel According to the Other Mary, a new oratorio based more or less on the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus. A libretto by Peter Sellars uses a number of contemporary extra-biblical sources (including the writings of Dorothy Day, social activist and co-founder of the Catholic Worker) to supplant portions of the traditional narrative and re-focus the point of view of the story to be that of two women, Mary Magdalene and Martha. It is intended as a sort of companion to El Niño, Messers. Adams’s and Sellars’s decade-old oratorio constructed in a similar fashion.
Based on Thursday’s world premiere performance conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, there are other similarities: both scores have some sparkling choruses, moving arias, and incisive orchestral writing. More importantly, however, there are key differences, two of which prove troublesome:
First of all, the extra-biblical sources included in El Niño, most especially the modern ones, are poetic commentary or are metaphoric extensions vague enough to fit into the traditional narrative; in the Other Mary, they explicitly alter the narrative. For example, Act 1 opens in a prison, with Mary singing: “The next day in the city jail we were searched for drugs. We were stripped naked. We were given prison clothes and put in cells.” This asks the listener to not only try to interpret the Passion play through the eyes of the women involved, but to accept the alternate context within which they are placed.
- You can choose to accept this on purely literal grounds, that the events are being time-warped back and forth through the so-called “eternal present.” This is how it is intended to be taken.
- Alternately, you can see the modern sequences as 21st century parallels to the psyche of the women’s experiences in biblical times, with imagined cinematic cuts back and forth between the present and the past.
You can see what the creative team is trying to achieve, and it is an interesting idea worth pursuing; however, in execution, neither interpretation compellingly does what it sets out to do: link the suffering and strength experienced by Mary Magdalene and Martha to that of Jesus. The women’s suffering is palpable but its connection to the Passion is forced, and at times, its intended meaning can get lost or twisted: when Martha sings, “Cesar came and talked to us about the injunction and arrests,” you’re not sure whether she’s talking about the First Century Roman emperor or the 20th Century Mexican-American activist; the conflicting interpretations not only cause confusion, they muddle the drama and lessen the impact.
Second, the newer work is non-trivially longer. Whereas El Niño is about 110 minutes long, the Other Mary (according to my own rough timekeeping) takes an extra 20 or 30 minutes, perhaps more. And it feels longer still. For every scene that moves you, another one quickly gets old and loses your interest. El Niño flows; this work lurches.
The result is that despite its many charms, The Gospel According to the Other Mary is — in its current form — ultimately a ponderous, disjointed work that falls apart under its own weight.
I say “in its current form” because Mr. Adams has been known to re-visit and re-work scores after their premiere. The Other Mary would certainly benefit from some judicious editing because the components of an excellent work are buried in there. The choral writing is uniformly stunning. The arias for Mary and Martha are often heartfelt. The orchestral writing includes ample amounts of power and oomph, mixed with a mystical and eerie quality that serves the drama well.
The soloists involved in this world premiere may not have the star quality of those involved with El Niño (Dawn Upshaw, Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson, and Willard White), but they had more than enough talent to effectively bring their respective characters to life.
- Kelly O’Connor completely inhabited Mary Magdalene, imbuing her with a rich, dramatic complexity; she could sometimes be vocally overwhelmed by the combined orchestral and choral forces behind her, but that seemed to be more of Mr. Adams or Mr. Dudamel’s fault than her own.
- Tamara Mumford looked striking and sounded beautiful. She offered a calming quality to Martha, even during her more distraught moments. At the end of her Act 2, Scene 2 lines about women taking two-hour shifts to pray all night, she decided to offer an unexpected smile that illuminated the moment better than words or music alone could have.
- Russell Thomas was a stentorian Lazarus, usually asked to sing somewhere between loud and louder. His Act 1 aria, “For the grave cannot praise thee” seemed like a direct counterpart to the baritone aria “Shake the Heavens” from El Niño. Mr. Thomas’s voice was better suited to the bigger moments than the more tender ones and it tended to fade out in the lower part of his range.
- A trio of countertenors jointly served as The Narrator and sometime voice of Jesus. Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, and Nathan Medley nicely filled the role, keeping impressively tight harmony and blend throughout. The sound of countertenors, let alone three of them, can be polarizing, and to be completely honest, it is not one of my favorite things. Though I found it initially grating, it became a non-issue by the middle of the work.
Mr. Dudamel led a relatively moderate orchestral contingent. Given the very limited time conductor and musicians had to learn the complex work, it is remarkable how tight a performance it was. I’d imagine that as they perform it more this year and next, it will become even more incisive. The biggest joy for me was the work of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Whether they were asked to belt out jolting fortissimos, lyrical lines, or mumble and grumble faux crowd noises, Grant Gershon’s forces were always astonishing and frequently magical in their contribution.
Random other thoughts:
- The LA Phil performs The Gospel According to the Other Mary again next year and takes it on tour, and perhaps then I will like it better. Of course, whatever musical and textual improvements get made (if any), the work will — depending on your point of view — either get the benefit of or be hamstrung by whatever theatrical machinations Peter Sellars comes up with in the staged version of the work. Personally, I’m a bit scared of what he’ll do with it, but even if I have to close my eyes, I’m willing to give this work another shot.
- While the two women wore lovely floor-length teal dresses, almost everyone else wore all-black, with the men wearing open-collared black dress shirts. The interesting exception were the three Narrators, who were in white tie and tails. It made for an interesting dramatic statement.
- The hall was about three-quarters full at the beginning of the concert, but by the end had shrunk to noticeably less than half-full. Given that the typical Walt Disney Concert Hall audience is fairly open to new music, even excited by it, that was a rather disappointing showing.
- On the program (and below), Ms. Mumford is listed as a “contralto,” but on her own website, she is referred to as a “mezzo-soprano.”
- ONE ADDITIONAL COMMENT FOR THE RECORD: I wrote much of this review over Friday, June 1, and Saturday, June 2nd, but didn’t publish it until Sunday, June 3rd. For some reason, I inadvertently published it with a “June 1, 2012” dateline. That was not my intent. I attempted to change it; however, all of the links to this post that have already been published by myself and others would no longer work, and therefore I resorted to the original June 1 dateline and added this caveat.
Los Angeles Philharmonic: May 31, 2012; Walt Disney Concert Hall
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Kelley O’Connor, mezzo-soprano
Tamara Mumford, contralto
Russell Thomas, tenor
Daniel Bubeck, countertenor
Brian Cummings, countertenor
Nathan Medley, countertenor
Los Angeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon, music director
John Adams: The Gospel According to the Other Mary (world premiere; LA Phil commission)