If it walks like a Passion and talks like a Passion, chances are it’s a Passion. But composer John Adams chose not call his most recent work, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, a Passion.
“I just avoided using the word ‘Passion,’” Adams told me earlier this week in a conversation backstage at Walt Disney Concert Hall, “because so many others had [used it] recently. Including Osvaldo [Golijov], but also Sofia Gubaidulina, Wolfgang Rihm, and not to mention that other guy, what’s his name? J.S. Bach.”
So, “opera-oratorio” hybrid it is. Whatever you call it, The Other Mary is big. And important. Commissioned by the LA Philharmonic, The Gospel According to the Other Mary is a two-act, 135+ minute work for six vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra that is receiving its world premiere this weekend with music director Gustavo Dudamel conducting the LA Phil and LA Master Chorale.
The libretto, collected and assembled by Peter Sellars, tells the story of the final days of the life of Jesus as seen mostly through the eyes of the women in his life, chiefly Mary Magdalene and her sister Martha. Interwoven with the biblical story are scenes from various important female poets, activists, and artists throughout history (Dorothy Day, Louise Erdrich, Rosario Castellanos, Hildegard of Bingen, and others). Scenes from the life of Jesus are juxtaposed with scenes from a United Farm Workers strike, a jail house, a boudoir. All the time-shifting back-and-forth is an attempt to illuminate the teachings of Jesus in a contemporary context, showing the parallels between Jesus’ response to poverty and how our society treats the marginalized today. (Sellars and Adams employed a similar tactic in crafting the libretto for the opera Doctor Atomic.)
For the most part, the libretto works in stunning fashion. During the Feast at Bethany, when Mary Magdalene cracks open an expensive bottle of perfume and uses it to wash the feet of Jesus, Mary’s words take on an erotic tone. She sings of the “sweep of [her] hair burnishing the arch of [Jesus'] foot.” And later, more defiantly, about how “girls get even with their fathers–by wrecking their bodies on other men.”
John Adams told me his score for The Other Mary was “far more experimental” than his oratorio from 2000, El Niño, about the birth of Christ. There were certainly plenty of new sounds from Adams’ pen, including extensive use of the cimbalom (played brilliantly by Chester Englander) throughout. The inclusion of an electric bass, while not something new for Adams (I Was Looking At The Ceiling And Then I Saw The Sky), added a sinister element to the musical drama.
Most striking, perhaps, was the chromaticism of the score. Adams’ music has always had a clear, crystalline quality of sound, consistently intricate and pristine. We’ve gotten hints of where Adams is headed, tonally, in recent years–dirtying things up a bit with Doctor Atomic and City Noir. But The Other Mary is much more extreme. Adams manages to maintain his hallmark intricacy, but the tonality is fractured and only shards of that recognizable “Adams sound” remain. He even calls for a generous amount of pitch-bending in Act 1, most powerfully performed by principal bassoonist Whitney Crockett. It’s all quite fitting for the subject matter:
-Mary singing about a drug addict “beating her head against the bars” of her prison cell
-Martha singing “we know there will be no utopias, that we will always have the poor”
-The chorus chanting a vision of Jesus tearing himself off cross: “Who rips his own flesh down the seems and steps forth flourishing the axe?”
By far Adams’ most original music comes during the scene at Golgotha. Adams calls for soft aleatoric murmuring in the chorus, creating an eerie foreboding atmosphere. (We know what comes next in the story.) As the procession nears the site of the crucifixion, the murmuring turns into groaning, which becomes increasingly louder and more anguished with each passing measure. This is the most intense realization of the biblical phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” that I’ve ever encountered. Every time Gustavo Dudamel asked for more from the LA Master Chorale, the singers had more to give. An absolutely spine-chilling moment.
Six vocal soloists in The Gospel According to the Other Mary, ranging only from mezzo-soprano to tenor. No baritones, basses, or sopranos here. In the title role, mezzo Kelley O’Connor was spectacular, deftly navigating Adams’ and Sellars’ musical and emotional obstacle course. Contralto Tamara Mumford was clear and powerful, particularly in her low register. Tenor Russell Thomas was a fiery Lazarus and, although I wish Adams had given him a bit more to sing, he did end up with one of the most poignant moments of the night: the luminous Passover aria at the close of Act 1, “Tell me: how is this night different from all other nights?”
Adams uses a trio of countertenors as the narrator (a role similar to the Evangelist in Bach’s Passions). He told me he borrowed the idea from his opera Nixon in China, where he used three female voices as Chairman Mao’s secretaries. Adams says he got that idea from Ray Charles’ backup singers. Whatever the inspiration, the execution was excellent. Adams squeezes emotion into what could be a dry housekeeping sort of role. Unresolved dissonances and intervals of major seconds abounded as the three singers (Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, and Nathan Medley) spun out the narrative.
The LA Master Chorale was thrilling. Every time I hear them I am reminded again of what an unsung hero (pun intended) their music director, Grant Gershon, is. As much praise as the LA Phil gets for being so comfortable and flexible in 20th and 21st century music, the LA Master Chorale deserves every bit as much acclaim. (They’ve got a mostly-Górecki concert coming up next week. Go. It will be fabulous.)
The performance by the orchestra was generally solid. There are always moments in John Adams’ music where a syncopation of a syncopation comes off a bit ragged and on Friday night it felt like the first violins were having the most difficult time. Michele Zukovsky had several nice klezmer licks on the clarinet. Andrew Bain and the French horn section were dialed in all night. Gustavo Dudamel mostly played the role of traffic cop, furiously cueing orchestra, chorus, and soloists left and right. It’ll be interesting to see how it sounds next year, when his interpretation (and everyone’s nerves) have a chance to settle. As John Adams told me, “[Dudamel is] essentially as new to it as anyone else and a conductor needs time for a work to get into his consciousness.”
Peter Sellars will stage The Other Mary next year. We’ll get four performances here in Los Angeles, before they take the show on the road to London, Paris, Lucerne, and New York. Quite a roll-out for a new work. I’m less interested in what the staging might add than I am simply excited to hear this piece again after everyone has spent a little more time with it letting it, as Adams says, “marinate.” It’s so huge, so dense, and so new, it’ll be best served by time.
-The orchestra was smaller than I anticipated. It felt like equal parts strings, winds, and percussion. I counted at least half a dozen traditional gongs, plus four or five racks of tuned Gamelan-style tuned gongs. Several bass drums, but noticeably absent were timpani.
-No tubas either. And only two trumpets and two trombones. Far more brass in the percussion section than in the brass section.
-Countertenor Daniel Bubeck made his professional debut in 2000, singing Adams’ companion piece to The Other Mary, El Niño.
-On Twitter I initially estimated the audience retention rate after intermission to be 75-80%. Turns out that number was a bit optimistic. It was closer to 70%, with nearly half of the patrons in the most expensive seats deserting their posts at halftime. Apparently, it’s a lot to ask to make it until 9:30 for the first bathroom break.
-On stage there were microphones galore–the singers wore wireless mics, and there were mics on stands throughout the orchestra. I know this wasn’t for the radio broadcast, because there isn’t a radio broadcast of this concert. It was in-hall amplification. There were speakers on stage and hanging from the ceiling, piping the lightly-boosted sound to the uppermost reaches of the hall. Curious that amplification was used, but it was tasteful and, in the moments when a soloist was trying to be heard while all hell was breaking loose in the orchestra, the microphones were a welcome addition.
-Everyone, including Dudamel, was dressed in all black. No tuxes or tails. Seemed appropriate.