John Adams, the internationally successful Bay Area composer, is currently having two weeks devoted to his music at the San Francisco Symphony, and last week started off with his feminist, Latina-tinged version of the "Messiah" called "El Niño."
The two-hour-plus piece had its U.S. premiere here in 2000, with Kent Nagano conducting beautifully. Willard White, Dawn Upshaw, and the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson were the extraordinary soloists. (There is a Nonesuch recording made with this cast that's definitive, and I can't recommend it highly enough.) Also at the premiere was the multimedia work of Peter Sellars, the impresario, director, and co-librettist of the patchwork libretto. Unfortunately, that consisted of an art film on a large screen about Chicano teenagers on the beach near LAX for two hours that was extremely annoying and distracting. There were also a couple of dancers writhing around onstage, which was totally unnecessary because there was so much else going on among the soloists, chorus and orchestra. The music was so exquisite and exciting that I went a second time in 2000, but brought along a sleep mask so I could just listen to it without all the distractions.
For 2010's performances, there was no film, no dancers, and the simplest of staging which worked perfectly, except for bumping the composer/conductor over to the right of the stage with the cellos. Returning from the 2000 performances were the three countertenors who narrate the story and sing in unison as the angel Gabriel. After ten years singing these roles, Steven Rickards, Brian Cummings, and Daniel Bubeck (above, left to right) were so good they just about walked off with the entire performance.
Dawn Upshaw as a lower-class Mary (above left) also returned, sounding and acting as great as ever, and Michelle deYoung (above middle) and Jonathan Lemalu were outstanding as The Female Principal and Joseph/Herod respectively.
The only marked improvement over 2010 was in Kent Nagano's conducting in 2000 compared to composer John Adams (below left) conducting the music himself this time around. He has a very funny and wise description of the rehearsal process at his "Hell Mouth" blog (click here), where he likens the experience of conducting this massive musical piece to "Piloting the Aircraft Carrier." He writes:
"Thursday’s opening night of “El Niño” ends up going pretty well. I am annoyed at times by the little blemishes in the ensemble that I know are the result of the bizarre stage layout, and I chide myself for perhaps not keeping my hands high enough and sufficiently visible for some player who’s struggling to see."
Did any of this particularly matter? Not even remotely. This is some of the most powerful and accessible music this composer has written in his 40+ year career, and watching him steer the aircraft carrier was a privilege.
Both finales to part one and part two of the oratorio were exquisite on Saturday evening, and the final parable about the palm tree sung by the huge girls' chorus (above) couldn't have been better.
Also in 2000, Michael Tilson Thomas conducted a superb performance of Adams' 1985 "Harmonielehre," another one of Adams' great, essential compositions. MTT is doing a reprise of that work this week along with some Cowell and Mozart.
I'm not going to say this twice. You need to go to this concert, and there are four chances, from Wednesday through Saturday evening. Click here to check out tickets, and the SF Symphony rush line for $20 tickets on the day of the performance is (415) 503-5577.