David Robertson: Conductor
Adams: The Gospel According to the Other Mary
Kelley O'Connor: Mezzo-soprano (Mary Magdalene)
Michaela Martens: Mezzo-soprano (Martha)
Jay Hunter Morris: Tenor (Lazarus)
Daniel Bubeck: Counter-tenor
Brian Cummings: Counter-tenor
Nathan Medley: Counter-tenor
St. Louis Symphony Chorus
'Tis Passion season again, and nowhere is it more obvious than in New York City where musical settings of the Gospel stories, with Bach's popular St. John Passion and St. Matthew Passion way ahead of other lesser versions, are springing out all over town. I tend to skip oratorios because they are a taste I have definitely not acquired, but this year brought along an irresistible offer that I simply could not turn down.
After the New York Philharmonic celebrated John Adams' 70th birthday last month with delightful performances of his Absolute Jest and Harmonielehre, Carnegie Hall pulled out all the stops and scheduled his Gospel According to the Other Mary, a modern oratorio from 2012 whose libretto was put together by Adams' long-time music partner Peter Sellars and combines traditional biblical content with texts by Hildegarde von Bingen, Primo Levi, Dorothy Day, Louise Erdrich and Rosario Castellanos, resulting in an uncommon smorgasbord of religion, spirituality and social activism. 'Nuff said.
Therefore, on Friday evening I left work a few minutes early and went back to Carnegie Hall's Stern Auditorium in a cold, windy and rainy weather that was making the anticipated adventure inside even more compelling.
The 30-minute pre-concert talk with composer John Adams, St. Louis Symphony Director David Robertson and Carnegie Hall Director of Artistic Planning Jeremy Geffen was short, casual and informative, but at the end of the day, Adams' quirkiness and Robertson's eloquence only made us more eager to experience the real thing, which we excitedly did.
And The Gospel According to the Other Mary turned out to be an indisputably ambitious, sprawling and fascinating work of love, which was also from time to time overreaching in its scope, inconsistent in its execution and over-extended in its length. There was apparently so much material and enthusiasm involved in the making of it that the final result ended up being as mesmerizing as overwhelming.
It for sure contains plenty of awesome music, resolutely wide-ranging and frequently inspired, and awesome ideas, like linking the past to the present. And Friday night we had a remarkable group of staunchly dedicated talents onstage that made it all happen. The huge orchestra included some unusual instruments such as the cimbalom, which infused a ubiquitous touch of exoticism, and a bass guitar, which was mostly notable for its inconspicuousness. Under the baton of their long-time director and conductor David Robertson, the musicians played confidently and whole-heartedly.
Ironically enough for a composition revolving around women, some of the most memorable moments of the evening belonged to Lazarus. Of course, his being represented by charismatic tenor Jay Hunter Morris in rare form did not hurt one bit. His first appearance had an unstoppable life-affirming swagger that could only from a man who, well, had just risen from the dead, and his soulful, not to mention gorgeous, crooning of Primo Levi's poem "Passover" was a genuine wonder of understatement and effectiveness.
But the ladies fared very well too, the main issue being that their voices were too often drowned by the rambunctious orchestra. As a high-strung Mary Magdalene, Kelley O'Connor had the dubious honor of opening the performance with an explosive aria describing her incarceration with a drug addict suffering from withdrawal symptoms. While the orchestra was boisterously conveying the brutality of the situation, the mezzo-soprano’s voice tended to disappear, never mind its sharp assertiveness.
With her richly nuanced voice and poised attitude, Michaela Martens was the more grounded Martha. Since she was generally found in quieter episodes, she had no trouble being heard, whether she matter-of-factly described her grueling work at the women' shelter or reproachfully upbraided Jesus for deliberately letting her brother die.
The three counter-tenors, who cleverly contributed to the transitions in various combinations, gave the performance necessary moments of undisturbed regrouping while their voices' unusual timbre provided a bit of an otherworldly atmosphere in between nerve-wracking scenes.
Anybody who bothered checking out Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer despite the unsubstantiated controversy surrounding it quickly realized that 1) the opera was not anti-Semitic and 2) the choral arias were phenomenal. And one of the biggest strengths of The Gospel According to the Other Mary is also its dazzling choral arias, which were magnificently performed by the St. Louis Symphony Chorus. From formidable to unfussy, they made the most of the work's impressive harmonic palette.
The journey, which lasted over two hours, was long and at times arduous, but also enlightening and eventually rewarding. The audience that made it through gave a fervent standing ovation, and then it was back in the even colder, windier and rainier night.