Last year, at the world premiere of John Adams’ passion-oratorio “The Gospel According to the Other Mary,” I wrote an extensive review. At the time, I said I was “less interested” in seeing how Peter Sellars would stage the work in the future, than I was simply excited to hear the music again. Turns out, I should have been more excited to see Sellars’ staging. It was vivid, yet minimal. It was transparent. And it helped connect the libretto together.
At the premiere a year ago, I wrote the audience retention rate at Walt Disney Concert Hall was about 70%. A year later, the work is a bit shorter (Adams cut some scenes), and Adams bumbed up some of the tempos. At the Barbican Centre Saturday night, the audience retention rate was close to 100%. (One couple near where I was sitting got up at a particularly conspicuous time and clattered out of the hall, never to return.)
It was important that this LA Philharmonic tour began at the Barbican Centre here in London. It was important that the Gospel was the centerpiece of the orchestra’s residency here. The LA Phil and Barbican Centre co-commissioned Adams’ Gospel. The orchestra is one of the Barbican’s International Partners, which means they have a long-term relationship with the performing arts center. (They were here two years ago; they’ll be back a couple years from now.)
There was a nervousness in the hall from the LA contingent the performance began. Adams’ Gospel is a very California-style piece, with references to political activism in the Golden State that might not translate to European audiences. (In The Guardian’s review, the writer referred to composer Carlos Chavez, when talking about the scene in The Gospel about Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers.) I sat a row in front of a critic from Grammophon Magazine, who didn’t seem particularly thrilled at intermission.
But by the end of the piece, the audience was cheering; and the critic behind me was using words like rapturous and thrilling. A similarly positive review came out in the Telegraph the next day. The Guardian said the performance was “vivid and immaculate;…a remarkable occasion.”
Adams and Sellars are certainly on to something with their Gospel. And our LA Philharmonic is showcasing its true identity as a 21st century orchestra with the work.