As the world’s gaze remains transfixed on American politics, a welcome opportunity to be reminded of the more humane aspects of the country’s heritage. A trio of American composers are celebrating "round birthdays" this season, all associated with a musical style typified by the urban rhythms and urbane ideals of the nation’s metropolises: minimalism.

John Adams © Christine Alicino
John Adams
© Christine Alicino
In the case of New Yorkers Steve Reich and Philip Glass, both turning 80 (the latter celebrates his birthday this week), their recent music has more or less kept a focus on the repetitive figures and slow processes of transformation that are the style’s calling card. John Adams, on the other hand, is a self-described West Coast liberal for whom minimalism was always part of a broad church of musical styles. In more recent works, the composer has developed his own compelling take on the European symphonic tradition.

It is therefore fitting that one of the biggest celebrations for Adams’ 70th birthday, which falls in February, is in the German capital, where he is Artist in Residence at the Berliner Philharmoniker. Last Friday, Adams and his long-time collaborator Peter Sellars were present for the orchestra’s fine concert performance of their biblical oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary under departing chief conductor, Sir Simon Rattle.

This contemporary update of the Passion is re-focused around the “other” Mary (Magdalene) in an attempt to “feminize Christianity”. Sellars’ libretto, however, doesn’t as much radically re-frame the biblical story as thread it into a colourful patchwork of texts by female writers from Hildegard von Bingen to feminist and socialist Dorothy Day. Musically, it remains one of Adams’ most adventurous works, a rich tapestry of styles that is closer to the European avant-garde than the post-minimalism of his early works.

In Berlin, Rattle drew out the work’s high tension and drama, from the propulsive cross-rhythms of the opening bars to the orchestral raindrops and thunderclaps of the crucifixion. The ensemble, supplemented by piano, harp, cimbalom and electric bass, gave vivid life to the score’s evocative use of orchestral colour. As with Bach before him, Adams’ setting focuses on the dark mystery of the Gospel story, for which he refers to the extended harmony of Messiaen and the shimmering portamento textures of Ligeti.

Whilst a trio of countertenors take the bulk of the narrative (the flawless Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley), and Lazarus’ tender tenor aria at the end of the first act (sung by Peter Hoare) was a stunning highlight, Mary and her sister Martha lie at the heart of the drama. American mezzo-sopranos Kelley O'Connor and Tamara Mumford made a good fist of difficult, untidy characters singing texts dating from the 1st century to the 20th.

The criticisms of over-length (the work comes in at over 2½ hours) that have dogged the work since its 2012 première in Los Angeles under Gustavo Dudamel persist. There are also nagging issues with a piece that explores femininity but is written by men. Nevertheless, with a luxuriant performance, Rattle and the Berlin Phil gave a persuasive case for the score’s eloquence and sophistication.