The Los Angeles Philharmonic, under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel, brought its season to a close with a world premiere of an oratorio the orchestra commissioned from one of today’s greatest living composers. On paper the alignment of the LAPO, Dudamel, and John Adams appeared to augur well for a memorable close to a season abounding in memorable music-making. In its own way—or despite itself—the composer's The Gospel According to the Other Mary proved memorable indeed, but for reasons perhaps not intended by its creators. Those that were in the Disney Hall audience for the premiere of John Adams’ new oratorio on May 31 are likely not to forget it for a long time.

John Adams © Christine Alicino
John Adams
© Christine Alicino

From the post-romantic grandeur of Harmonielehre, to the controversy of The Death of Klinghoffer, to the late-Mahler-meets-Brian-Wilson world of Naïve and Sentimental Music, crackling vitality—even urgency—is the unifying thread that weaves through the best of the work of John Adams. Yet one was dismayed at the sheer blandness of the musical ideas—a terrible flaw in a work that lasts nearly two and a half hours. From a hall that appeared to be at 80% capacity at the beginning of the program, fewer than half returned to their seats after the intermission, with still more defections occurring throughout the work’s second half. The few that remained gave the work a very warm reception, though one wondered whether it was the composer’s reputation, rather than the excellence of the work at hand, that they were applauding.

In The Gospel According to the Other Mary, Adams follows in the footsteps of Schütz, Bach, and in more recent times Gubaidulina and Golijov, in composing a musical rendering of the Passion of Christ. Adams is no stranger to religious works of ambitious scope, as his spectacular opera-oratorio El Niño firmly attests. The Gospel, in fact, was intended as a sequel to the earlier work. Like El Niño, this piece employs a smallish orchestra of about 50 or so musicians—albeit augmented with some instrumental exotica such as the cimbalom and a vast array of tuned gongs. Yet where the earlier work dazzled with its color and the eloquence of its modern retelling of the nativity story, this one simply meandered, never reaching the heights its composer seemed to aim for.

Part of the problem stemmed from the fact that the work is one in which theater plays a crucial role—an element completely lost in this concert performance. Narrative details that would have been clear in a theatrical setting were lost completely in concert. Doubly so when the work’s libretto plays as loose as it does with the story of Christ’s final days. With its rapid juxtapositions of time and place, it can be easy for the listener to be completely lost, unless they regularly check the synopsis.

The libretto by long-time Adams collaborator Peter Sellers added further to the Gospel’s troubles. Comprised of excerpts from the Old and New Testaments and spliced with selections from sources as diverse as Hildegard von Bingen ans Rosario Castellanos, the text was a stilted and mawkish affair exacerbated by Adams’ earthbound and repetitive setting.

But libretto and staging do not an oratorio make—or break. Ultimately it was the music which disappointed most. From its opening bars to its ghostly coda, the Gospel was permeated with a lackluster sameness in sound that completely destroyed any tension the work’s dramatic arc could have mustered. Whether it was the crucifixion of Christ or a raid by police into a migrant camp led by Cesar Chavez, the music was never able to propel the action into something red-blooded or dynamic. Instead it served as mostly tepid sonic wallpaper to the events it portrayed. Only in the frenzied orchestral interlude depicting the death of Lazarus and in his later raging speech at the dinner after his resurrection did the music come to life, pulsating with the energy characteristic of Adams’ best music.

The latter aria was helped further by the extraordinary voice of tenor Russell Thomas. His silvery, heroic voice—with gleaming, effortless top notes, wondrous legato, seamless range, and impassioned expressiveness—was well worth the wait to hear him; this made one regret that his role in comparison to his companions was relatively small. Part of the thrill of hearing Thomas was the refreshing difference in quality to the voices of his co-stars. Employing three countertenors, a mezzo-soprano, and contralto, their parts—superbly sung by Daniel Brubeck, Brian Cummings, Nathan Medley, Kelley O’Connor, and Tamara Mumford—were all too similar to each other, dulling each other’s roles, and creating a dull spectrum of grays.

Still, the choral and orchestral execution were, as always, outstanding. The Los Angeles Master Chorale—honed into an instrument of refulgent beauty and gem-like precision by its music director, Grant Gershon—sang with a level of fervor and exacting musicianship that rank it among very elite company in the choir world.

No less secure musically, although a bit tentative in expression, was the Los Angeles Philharmonic. That they had to make do with limited rehearsals—the composer completed the work only very recently—was telling in the neutral shading and color they glossed the work with. In terms of sheer musical excellence, however, they blazed with their usual brilliance.

The Gospel is set to be performed again by the orchestra next season, this time in the staged setting its creators intended. One will hope that by then the orchestra will have lived more with the work, that the staging will help clarify the Gospel’s narrative—and that the composer wisely revisit the work with the editor’s knife. Until then, the impression left is of a work deeply flawed, hampered by a myriad problems, offset only momentarily by the composer’s usual genius.

**111