Women’s issues have been in the political spotlight in 2017 throughout the United States and across the globe, and the world of classical music has been unapologetically vocal about gender disparities in the field where critics are hard at work investigating the future of gender inequality in music. Although John Adams is obviously not a contemporary female composer, his focus as an engaged artist who challenges traditional perspectives, specifically of women in Christian scripture, certainly appears to be a step in the right direction. Maestro David Robertson and the St Louis Symphony and Chorus joined a fine cast at Carnegie Hall on Friday night for a captivating performance of Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary.

St Louis Symphony at Carnegie Hall © Steve J Sherman
St Louis Symphony at Carnegie Hall
© Steve J Sherman

Adams’ Passion-oratorio accounts the Christian account of Jesus’ death and transfiguration through the eyes of Mary Magdalene, her sister Martha, and her brother Lazarus, with words appropriated by Peter Sellars from texts of June Jordan, Rosario Castellanos, Primo Levi, Louise Eldrich, Dorothy Day, Rubén Dario, Hildegard von Bingen and the Bible itself. Crediting debacles are rampant in the world of directors (see Robbins’ “box” in West Side Story), so you have to roll your eyes a bit when Sellars is billed as a “librettist” while you conduct light research to discover who actually wrote the texts. Nevertheless, Adams’ score is nothing short of intense, opening in a prison cell where Mary finds herself going through drug withdrawal. Kelley O’Connor emoted Mary’s anguish through space-restrictive dramatic movements, which are tough to pull off in an oratorio setting, and let her chest voice reign supreme as she plunged several times below middle C. Mary’s more pragmatic sister, Martha, who among other things runs a women’s shelter for unemployed women, was robustly sung by Michaela Martens. The two mezzos’ understandings of their characters and Adams’ musical language set a resounding precedent for all the performers.

Jay Hunter Morris © Steve J Sherman
Jay Hunter Morris
© Steve J Sherman

The majority of the oratorio’s narrative, from Lazarus’s tomb to Bethany to Golgotha, is driven by a trio of angelic countertenors (Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley) who reside on the harsher side of beautiful. The dark chronicle of events sounded as if it originated from a three-headed monster rather than cherubs on a cloud, but the quality nevertheless heightened the plot’s dramatic tension. Adams’ chorus members also play integral character roles in the oratorio – a suspicious mob, weeping disciples, etc. – and the St Louis Symphony Chorus, under the direction of Amy Kaiser, gave their full focus in this performance. Their howls, wails, and sobs in Act 2, Scene 3 as Jesus remarks, "Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me,” made for an impassioned, though perhaps formulaically premature, climax.

Kelley O'Connor © Steve J Sherman
Kelley O'Connor
© Steve J Sherman

Some of the evening’s most memorable moments were sung by tenor Jay Hunter Morris (Lazarus), whose lustrous voice projected brilliantly over the enormous orchestra. The sheer power of his voice was real as he cried in divine exaltation after being zombified by the Son of God, and its sultry temperament emerged in the ominous ponderance of the Ma Nishtana (“How is this night different from other nights?”) during the Passover celebrations at the end of Act 1; this somewhat optimistic tune, that foreshadows the downfall of his savior, sounds almost ripped from the Broadway stage, but glitters in Adams’ complex harmonic accompaniment. Morris, like O’Connor and Martens, championed his part so flawlessly that his character’s raw emotions translated effortlessly to the listener.

Adams could not have found a more devout disciple of his music than Maestro Robertson, who energized the performers with intense passion that is rarely harnessed so perfectly. His communication with the musicians of St Louis is deeply personal, and this was evident by the care he gave to each section in order to extract Adams’ most minute details. It is performances like this that can convert even the most conservative listener to the Church of New Music.