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Friday, March 29, 2013

Concert Review: The Passion, California Style

John Adams' The Gospel According to the Other Mary with the L.A. Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The cast of The Gospel According to the Other Mary with conductor Gustavo Dudamel (left).
Photo by Richard Termine © 2013 Richard Termine Courtesy Lincoln Center.
Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic are back in New York. On Wednesday night, the fiery Venezuelan conductor led the New York premiere of The Gospel According to the Other Mary, a massive, nearly three-hour oratorio by composer John Adams. Other Mary (as it is called in the program) is a follow-up to Mr. Adams' 2000 composition El Niño. It recounts the late works, death, and resurrection  of Jesus from a distinctly feminist perspective.

The libretto is by Mr. Adams' longtime collaborator director Peter Sellars. The text juxtaposes the Bible story with examples of 20th century female piety, including contemporary poetry, the inspiration of modern art and the stories of social activist Dorothy Day (leader of the Catholic Worker Movement) and oppressed migrants workers praying the Rosary in support of labor activist Cesar Chavez.

Mr. Adams provides narrative drive and a thick orchestral texture that can support the weight of these momentous events. Ostinatos start in a slow build in the strings, rising to thunderous heights to depict the majesty of these events. The orchestra worked hand-in-hand with the chorus (here, the Los Angeles Master Chorale) gathering momentum. The early pages recall Bach's Passions and Wagner's Parsifal, not in terms of musical sound-world but in that the listener goes from being a mere observer to a participant in the story. The serene passages encourage contemplation.

Russell Thomas (center) as Lazarus in The Gospel According to the Other Mary.
Photo by Richard Termine © 2013 Richard Termine Courtesy Lincoln Center.
The tone of the work changed radically in the second half of Act I with the arrival (in a green body bag) of tenor Russell Thomas as Lazarus. He literally rose from the dead onstage, making Lazarus a finely detailed character. His extended, act-ending aria (a setting of "Passover" by Italian poet Primo Levi) had a dark night of the soul quality, underlining the connection between the Last Supper and the observance of Passover.

A trio of countertenors (Daniel Bubeck, Nathan Medley and Michael Cummings) narrated the words and actions of Jesus with clear, sweet voices. Mezzo-sopranos Kelly O'Connor and Tamara Mumford played  Mary Magdalene and Martha, with their parts (already somewhat interchangeable) diverging into portraits of  also being interpreted by lithe, athletic dancers. (Ms. O'Connor and Ms. Mumford also threw themselves into the choreography, sometimes singing against the surge of a heavy orchestra.)

The second act opened with a striking prologue: a musical depiction of the painting Christ Destroying his Cross by the Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orozco. This became a violent, Stravinskyian ballet, an effective lead-in to the story of the Passion. Dancers and singers acted out Christ's torment and final suffering. When the Resurrection came, it is a relief, underlined with a slight question as Mary encounters Jesus in the guise of an ordinary gardener.

Mr. Dudamel led an expanded ensemble, which had hidden in its depths a full drum kit, six-string electric bass and multiple gongs and percussion instruments. Although his work here was to maintain the momentum of this sprawling piece, he did draw some gorgeous textures forth, particularly in the Act I "Rain" chorus that followed the resurrection of Lazarus. The  Night vigil on Golgotha incorporated shadowy orchestral textures comparable to the darkest symphonic thoughts of Gustav Mahler.

The two-act oratorio incorporated singing, dance and a full chorus, with a modern light show and amplification for the singers. The Los Angeles Master Chorale, decked out in very "Californian" casual costumes looked fresh from the beach shack, and acted through Mr. Sellars' complex choreography with enthusiasm. They also sang with great precision and energy, considering the difficulties of doing so while executing movements on a high platform above the orchestra.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.