The composer John Adams' month-long, 70th birthdaypalooza continued at the San Francisco Symphony last week with a performance of his 2012 Passion Oratorio, The Gospel According to The Other Mary. The original commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic was for a 90-minute work but the piece kept expanding until its blossomed into a nearly 3-hour epic that can stand with the J.S. Bach Passions. Much of the initial reaction from critics was puzzled and hostile, because Adams had left most of his minimalist signatures behind and struck out into new musical territories. Plus, the work is so relentlessly rich, dark and dense that it is difficult to absorb on a first hearing. (All production photos are by Stefan Cohen.)
The performing forces are similar to Adams' other biblical oratorio, the 2000 El Niño, with three vocal soloists divided between two women and one man, a trio of three countertenors handling most of the narration, a chorus and huge orchestra. From left to right above, Jay Hunter Morris sang Lazarus, mezzo-sopranos Kelley O'Connor and Tamara Mumford sang his sisters Mary Magdalene and Martha, and Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, and Nathan Medley were the otherworldly countertenors. (Daniel and Brian were also part of the original cast of El Niño.)
The director Peter Sellars provided another collage style libretto, half Biblical sources and half poetry that ranged from Dorothy Day's descriptions of homeless shelters and being arrested with Dolores Huerta during the 1960s farmworker strikes to impassioned poetry by Louise Erdrich, Rosario Castellanos, June Jordan, Hildegard von Bingen and Ruben Dario. The first half of the oratorio ends rather like the Batter my heart aria in Adams' opera Doctor Atomic, with Lazarus singing a Passover poem by Primo Levi, Tell me: how is this night different. The biblical/poetic potpourri struck me as one of Sellars' more successful cut-and-paste jobs, and next to the clunky, old-fashioned libretto of Mark Adamo's similarly themed opera, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which premiered at the SF Opera in 2013, Sellars' blueprint felt like genius.
Much of the audience last Saturday had a difficult time with the piece, partly because it starts so slowly. When Lazarus is brought back from the dead by Jesus about twenty minutes in, the dramatic and musical interest spikes sharply and doesn't let up until a long, ruminative ending that extends past Jesus' crucifixion to his resurrection, ending with Erdrich's poem The Sacraments:
It is spring. The tiny frogs pullfollowed by a biblical account from the Book of John describing Mary meeting a gardener who is the resurrected Jesus.
their strange new bodies out
of the suckholes, the sediment of rust,
The performers, most of them singing in the 2012 premiere, were excellent. The tenor Jay Hunter Morris seemed to be having difficulties with some of the more strenuous lines, but mezzo-sopranos O'Connor and Mumford were flawless and deeply moving. The use of the trio of countertenors strikes some friends as weird, but I love their sound, both in their many unison sections and occasional solos, and the performances by Bubeck, Cummings and Medley were definitive. Grant Gershon from the Los Angeles Master Chorale (below center) kept the complex score transparent and dynamic. The San Francisco Symphony orchestra and chorus demonstrated once again how expertly fluent they are in Adams' tricky music.
The Gospel According to The Other Mary has been performed around the world as a straight oratorio and also with elaborate staging, including dancers. At the SF Symphony performances, there was a starkly simple staging by Elkhanah Pulitzer of the six singers against a white wall and a few props that worked fine, although I missed Adam Larsen's projections which have so enhanced SoundBox and James Darrah's staged productions at Davies Hall. There was slight amplification of the soloists which was some of the best, least obtrusive sound design by Mark Grey I have heard in that big barn.
Living in the Bay Area while John Adams has emerged as one of the Western world's most successful composers over the last four decades has been a joy, with multiple world premieres and original performers on our doorstep. There were plenty of walkouts during the performance on Saturday because the oratorio is dark and challenging, but I would have gladly gone back to hear The Other Mary the following night. Happily, the birthdaypalooza continues this weekend, and we get to hear the SF Symphony tonight finally perform Scheherezade.2, the 2015 "dramatic symphony for violin and orchestra" with soloist Leila Josefowicz, for whom it was written.