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Monday, April 3, 2017

Concert Review: Another Trip to Golgotha

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra offers John Adams' The Gospel According to the Other Mary.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
At the controls: conductor David Robertson. Photo by Scott Ferguson.
There is some debate as to whether The Gospel According to the Other Mary, the 2013 work for soloists, chorus and orchestra by composer John Adams, is an opera or an oratorio. For Friday night's performance at Carnegie Hall, conductor David Robertson chose the latter option, presenting a straight concert performance of this two-act work on the wide but shallow stage of Stern Auditorium.

The genre of oratorio became popular in the 18th century, when church officials frowned at the use of sets and costumes to depict religious events onstage. However, Mr. Adams' work reaches back further to the genre of the Passion, a story that specifically depicts the last days and suffering of Jesus Christ. Setting a libretto by his longtime collaborator Peter Sellars, Mr. Adams eschews the Gospels for a contemporary text, retelling the story from the viewpoint of Mary Magdalene and incorporating poetry, texts and a modern context for this momentous story.

From the start of his compositional career, Mr. Adams has been lumped in with the "minimalist" school: Western composers who use short musical fragments to build enormous castles of sound. However, his last decade has shown a preference for melody and quotation, incorporating a Mahlerian style of reference and allusion in his music. Here, the model was clearly Bach's two surviving Passion scores, and the singers were given real arias to perform over the pulse of the orchestra.

There is no Christ "character." Rather, the spotlight is on Mary Magdalene, Lazarus and Martha of Bethany. Kelley O'Connor, who sang this role at the work's premiere, returned to portray Mary Magdalene in a potent performance that suggested love, madness and, at the work's grim climax, overwhelming grief. However, this libretto brings a touching end to her story as she encounters the resurrected Jesus in the guise of a gardener, hinting at a tantalizing future for these two figures.

Martha of Bethany is reimagined here as the manager of the House of Hospitality, a women's shelter that she and Mary run together. This was a driven performance by mezzo Michaela Martens. As Lazarus, heldentenor Jay Hunter Morris was committed both in death and resurrection, bringing a kind of necessary ecstasy to the figure and letting his instrument ring out brightly. In place of a narrating Evanglelist, a trio of countertenors (Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley) supplied commentary and spoke on the behalf of the divine.

This Carnegie Hall concert marked the second performance of Other Mary in New York, the other being a staged version in 2013 at Avery Fisher Hall. Here, the oratorio format seemed to suit the piece better. David Robertson again showed why St. Louis is blessed with one of the best orchestras in the country, with crisp strings and precise percussion emerging from the enormous well of sound. The second act was much more propulsive than the first, driving the story to its grim conclusion with the tantalizing hint of redemption in the ending.

The choral singers brought energy to the work, creating a vast shout of humanity from Mr. Adams' signature short phrases and syllabic writing. They played the crowd witnessing these momentous events, and sometimes the shouts of migrant workers or prisoners suffering from heroin withdrawal. At the crux of the work, they became a veritable Babel of voices, singing a great slithering earthquake of syllables, a portrait of the chaotic crowd of onlookers that surrounded Jesus on the cross. It was the most unsettling moment of the night.

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