Despite a long tradition, I tend to be sceptical of composers conducting their own works. A score is not a fixed immutable object, but a living thing, full of possibilities for interpretation and it’s not always a certainty that the composer, with so much already invested, is best-placed to take to the podium; more often relinquishing control, and trusting others produces unforeseen wonders. And while John Adams was excellent in his preface on the podium before Sunday’s performance of El Niño (his likening King Herod to Donald Trump tweeting orders at 3am to find the Christ-child went down particularly well), his passion and energy didn’t quite translate into a miraculous performance from the excellent London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.
A shame too, as the work itself is quite spectacular, a modern-day Messiah, its title a double invocation of the baby Jesus and intense storms. The libretto unites the Nativity story from the gospels with a variety of texts, the most striking being those of 20th-century female Hispanic writers – Adams was keen to point out that this story of birth had been predominantly told through the writings of men, and that he wanted to illustrate the female perspective.
The orchestra and chorus were joined by Joélle Harvey, Jennifer Johnson Cano and Davóne Tines, as well as countertenors Daniel Burbeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley. The first two countertenors had been involved with this work since the première, and as such they slightly dominated. When there was an opportunity to hear Medley on his own as wise man Gaspar in The Three Kings however, he was an absolute revelation.
Jennifer Johnson Cano was magnificent, especially in the settings of sublime poetry by Rosario Castellanos, conveying the emotional mysticism of conception and pregnancy in La anunciación, joined by Joélle Harvey for the agony and ecstasy of birth in Se Habla de Gabriel. Harvey’s voice was akin to the première’s soprano Dawn Upshaw, but Johnson Cano was careful not to overpower her. Elsewhere Harvey was sultry, leaving no question about her meaning when she implored the angel Gabriel to “teach me” about how to conceive, having never known a man, in Hail Mary, gracious. She also vividly brought to life Memorial del Tlateloloco, Castellanos’ response to the massacre of protestors in 1968 juxtaposed with Herod’s massacre of the innocents, the Chorus underneath her seeming to switch from being the voices of the dead innocents to the ignoring public, before chanting “we must remember” like a mantra. The quality of the translations for the surtitles was also excellent, though only necessary for the English texts when all forces were involved, as diction was uniformly excellent.
Davóne Tines was very fine; however, I felt also that he has yet much more to give expressively. He was excellent as the jealous Joseph, full of indignation, though things flagged in Joseph’s Dream. In part, he suffered here as in Adams' keenness to give voice to the female experience, his music left something wanting in Joseph’s personal experience. He was handsomely imperious in Shake the Heavens, but never quite threw his whole being into the performance in the same way as Harvey and Johnson Cano. I suspect if he did, in future, it would be something truly spectacular to behold.
Though inspired by the Messiah, I also felt the influence of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, particularly in sections involving the Chorus. Their entrance in Shake the Heavens was jaw-dropping, and they were joyous in For with God no thing shall be impossible. Their sense of warning in Woe to them that call evil good was a stark contrast underneath Tine’s Herod falsely declaring his wish to worship the Christ-child, a movement that was wonderfully dirty from both the chorus and orchestra, the latter thanks to a wonderful brass and percussion section and thumping piano. There was a real violence in their opening to the Magnificat and Shake the Heavens, while during In the day of the great slaughter the violins were like knife blades. The finale, A Palm Tree seemed a little odd with the London Youth Choir taking the stage in casual clothes, perhaps intended to invoke children playing out in the street. It probably would have made more sense in the work’s original staged format, and ultimately didn’t detract from the innocent sweetness of their singing.
With so much to savour, unfortunately it ultimately didn’t coalesce and much of this was down to Adams himself. Though the Chorus is amateur, sometimes the orchestra and very rarely even the soloists struggled to follow his beat. At times his attempts to drive the music on impeded rather than enabled things to happen, producing frustrating, unfocussed results. Altogether a fine performance, but I left feeling that it could have been so much more.
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