As I listened to John Adams’ El Niño in the half-light of the Royal Festival Hall, I found myself musing that it could be said that Adams is the Stephen King of the classical music world. Both are masters of a simple, sophisticated, but unchallenging technique, putting clarity and storytelling above poetry for much the time. Both have an unerring instinct for communicating ideas to a wide audience. Both were born in New England in 1947. Critics and academics have treated both with some condescension. And with the angelic purity of John Adams’ El Niño still in my ears I looked round to see a nearly full house eagerly lapping up a work composed in 2000 – a rare event indeed. Maybe this comparison was not a put-down, but an acknowledgement that classical music may have more of a future within its tradition of melody, rhythm and harmony, than in the experimentation and pushing the boundaries that characterised the 20th century.

John Adams © Margaretta Mitchell
John Adams
© Margaretta Mitchell

The touching directness and technical brilliance of El Niño did much to raise Adams’ reputation when it was first performed at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris in December 2000. This was a work that used dramatic theatrical effects to tell one of the most famous of all the stories, the Nativity, clearly owing a debt to Handel and Bach and the host of oratorio writers that have followed. Without the need for tricky manipulation of quirky material, necessary in many of his operas such as Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, Adams finds more of a sense of wonder and naturalness in El Niño. As the beautiful music unfolded I felt that for the first time in a vocal work by Adams, his compositional strengths and his subject matter were perfectly in tune.

And this was a generally a performance that brought out these strengths. The London Philharmonic Orchestra have been on top form recently and the Ravel-like clarity of this score suited their beautifully balanced – not string-dominated – sound, to a tee. Vladamir Jurowski held the forces together with a clear beat and some very apt tempi. The London Philharmonic Choir were also on their toes, responding to tricky rhythmic passages with nimbleness and clarity – demonstrated wonderfully in the thrilling opening chorus “I Sing of a Maiden”.

The vocal soloists were all very effective, but none of them displaced memories of the soloists on the original Kent Nagano recording, crowned by the rapturous tones of Dawn Upshaw. By comparison, Rosemary Joshua seemed a little cautious and earthbound – perhaps due to the fact that she was brought in to replace Kate Royal, who was originally cast. Kelley O’Connor in the mezzo-soprano role had something of her own to say about the part. Her wonderfully resonant and rich voice seemed to find a special rhythmic flexibility and freedom in her wonderful aria “La Annunciación”. Bass Matthew Rose was resonant and commanding and sensitive by turns. Sometimes I would have liked a more theatrical approach to the part and slightly less of the “oratorio”, as in his wonderful aria in the second part, “Dawn Air”.

Underpinning the whole work was the mini-chorus of three countertenors - Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Steven Rickards in this performance (as at the première). Their plaintive commentary acted as a benevolent guide and they carried the transitions between set pieces. Particularly moving in the exquisite final movement, “A Palm Tree” the trio of singers acquitted themselves beautifully throughout, capturing a innocence of tone that was often very moving.

And the final mention should be given to the two children’s choirs – the Coloma St Cecilia Singers and Trinity Boys Choir – for creating a perfect raptness and simplicity to round off this cherishable work.

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