By Pete M and Melanie Wong
Photo credit: Richard Termine, New York Times
Last week, the Los Angeles Philharmonic returned to Avery Fisher Hall for a two-night run as part of Lincoln Center's Great Performers series. According to some news outlets, the LA Phil was merely the supporting cast for music director Gustavo Dudamel, who continues to garner rockstar-like attention beyond all reason. Lest we forget, Duda fans: the L.A. Phil that exists today, which many consider to be the most innovative—if not the best—orchestra in the country, cut its teeth under its previous music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen: a composer and tireless champion of new music. Dudamel, now in his fourth season as music director, still has a long way to go before he fills Salonen's shoes.
That said, Dudamel has made a sincere effort during hs tenure to keep pace with his predecessor's contemporary music cred (such as when I saw him perform Ollie Knussen in L.A. last October). Such was the case with last Wednesday's New York premiere of John Adams' The Gospel According to the Other Mary: a huge, two-and-a-half-hour oratorio (for lack of a better word) for orchestra, chorus, and soloists. Working with longtime collaborator Peter Sellars, who both assembled the libretto and directed the semi-staged production, Adams has constructed a bold—if unwieldy—masterpiece: if El Niño (2000) was Adams' response to Handel's Messiah, The Gospel According to the Other Mary is his St. Matthew Passion.
Adams, a longtime California resident, has developed a special relationship with the L.A. Phil, cemented in 2009 when Dudamel named him the orchestra's first-ever Creative Chair. Over the years, Adams has written several significant works for the L.A. Phil, including Naive and Sentimental Music (1998), The Dharma at Big Sur (2003), and City Noir (2009). And, he occasionally appears with them as a guest conductor.
Perhaps best known for his landmark operas Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, and Doctor Atomic, Adams has embraced the oratorio as a somewhat more flexible format, able to be performed either in concert or as a fully staged production. Working with Sellars, Adams—who, by the way, isn't particularly religious—has taken these biblical narratives and placed them "in the eternal present," in Sellars' terminology. In El Niño, they achieved this with a half-Spanish, half-English libretto that interspersed scenes from The Nativity with poetry of contemporary Mexican women.
The Gospel According to the Other Mary continues the narrative by telling the story of Jesus' passion through the eyes of Mary Magdalene who, with her sister Martha, runs a halfway house for homeless women. As with El Niño, Sellars alternates passages from the bible with modern-day writings from women poets Louise Erdich, June Jordan, and Rosario Castellanos, as well as the social worker Dorothy Day. But, the action swings confusingly back and forth like a yo-yo: at one moment, we witness Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead; in the next, Mary and Martha are getting arrested for participating in one of Cesar Chavez' protest marches. While striving to be dramatic and relevant, Sellars mostly succeeds in being inscrutable.
But that's to take nothing away from Adams' score, which is chock-full of astonishing aural effects while holding fast to his winning formula of propulsive rhythms and radiant harmonics. Unusual instruments, such as synthesizers, tuned cow bells, and cimbalom (dulcimer), figured prominently throughout. And, as in El Niño, three countertenors (Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, and Nathan Medley) sang the role of the narrator, their harmonized voices both penetrating and haunting.
The entire cast from the L.A. premiere joined the Phil and Master Chorale in New York. Soprano Kelley O'Connor, a rising star who has become a frequent guest of the L.A. Phil, sang the role of Mary with stunning clarity and force: with her hair cropped short, she resembled a young Dawn Upshaw. Mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford brought dignity and reserve to the role of Martha, and tenor Russell Thomas, an African-American of not-small stature, shattered any preconceived notions of how Lazarus should look, singing with visceral power.
When Adams and Sellars came out for their curtain calls, the packed Avery Fisher Hall roared its approval, immediately recognizing the astonishing achievement they had just witnessed. Adams, who says he spent an intense 15 months on the score, looked mostly relieved.
On Thursday night, Avery Fisher was again sold out for a program that put the focus squarely on the orchestra. The concert opened with Claude Vivier's Zipangu (1981), a piece for 13 strings written just two years before the French composer's untimely death. Built off a single melody, Zipangu explored color through extended bowing techniques juxtaposed with glissandi, dissonant intervals, and high dynamic contrast, all of which sounded like the score to an old horror film. Dudamel, conducting from memory, looked like a stringed puppet possessed by the music.
The full orchestra took the stage for Debussy’s impressionistic La Mer, which the L.A. Phil performed with unfaltering energy and passion. Here, the strings sparkled, the winds were pure and precise, and the brass section blew the audience back in their seats, roaring with majesty.
After intermission came Stravinsky’s Firebird, in the full ballet version. The performance was both exciting and effective: during the "Infernal Dance of Katschei’s Subjects," the sound was so grand that the entire audience broke into spontaneous applause (typically considered taboo in a classical setting). At the ballet's brass-driven finale, I happened to glance around and noticed that almost every person was beaming with smiles, something I had never witnessed at an orchestra concert before. Credit Dudamel's infectious passion and intensity, which could be felt all the way down to the last violin player.
Charmingly, Dudamel seemed determined to avoid taking credit for the success of his orchestra, hiding behind his string players during the standing ovations and insisting on calling out soloists over and over. Who wouldn’t want to play for this guy? And who wouldn’t want to watch?