'Tis the season for holiday music in New York, with all the major arts institutions around town putting their usual offerings on the shelf in favor of the same old chestnuts that have been delighting audiences for decades, or longer. Carnegie's contribution to this year's meleé had the unfortunate name of Nativity Triptych: a series of three concerts held this past weekend in Stern Auditorium. The first two - neither of which I attended - had Quèbec's Les Violons Du Roy performing the usual suspects: Handel's Messiah and Bach's Christmas Oratorio. I'm sure they were both fine performances.
But the third concert, held Sunday night, was something altogether different. John Adams composed his oratorio El Niño ten years ago in celebration of the millennium, taking the traditional Nativity story and embellishing it with Latin American poetry and other mystical texts. It was well received, and has gone on to see numerous additional performances around the world. (It received it's New York premiere in 2003, and has been performed once or twice here since then.)
But, Sunday was the first time El Niño was performed at Carnegie Hall: a conspicuously high-profile presentation for a 21st century work. Clearly, Carnegie wanted to make a statement by placing El Niño in this particular context. But, would it hold its own next to the warhorses of Bach and Handel? Would people even show up?
Indeed they did: from my vantage point near the stage, I saw hardly any open seats. No doubt many were there by virtue of having bought the full weekend package, others out of curiosity, and for the chance to see Adams himself conduct the Orchestra of St. Luke's and Westminster Choir. But, I bet most were there because they had previously heard - or at least heard of - this modern masterpiece.
El Niño is in two parts of twelve sections each, each part lasting about an hour. The libretto is cobbled together from several disparate sources, including the Old and New Testament, the Apocryphal gospels, the Wakefield Mystery Plays and, most unusually, several Latin American poets. The main narration of the story is delivered by three countertenors singing in unison, their haunting voices backed by celesta, synthesizer and other electronics. For this performance, Carnegie reunited the three performers who sang the world premiere in Paris in 2000: Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Steven Rickards.
The incomparable Dawn Upshaw - who also performed in the world premiere - sang the central role of Mary as well as several of the poetic texts, including Rosario Castellanos' dark, searing "Memorial for Tlateloloco," about a pair of Mexican massacres separated by centuries. Michelle DeYoung's clear, powerful mezzo rang out in "La Anunciacion" and "Pues Mi Dios."
There are many extraordinary moments in El Niño. Right from the start, in "I Sing of a Maiden," Adams employs his signature melisma in the strings, combined with brass that builds to a fever pitch. At the start of the "Magnificat," the orchestra convulses in an ecstatic explosion before quickly dying out. And, during the disturbing Slaughter of the Innocents, Adams makes the strings squeak like those in Bernard Hermann's Psycho. Despite all that clamor, El Niño ends quietly and mysteriously, with a children's chorus arriving on stage to sing a final poem by Castellanos, accompanied only by a solo guitar.
While he was alive, Handel himself would frequently conduct performances of Messiah, of all different shapes ands sizes. Watching Adams take numerous curtain calls with the soloists, it wasn't difficult to project ahead to the day many years from now when, after countless holiday performances of El Niño, audiences will say to themselves: "Wow, I wish I could have been there, back when Adams used to conduct it himself." (More pics below.)