Last March the LA Philharmonic, under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel, brought John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary to the Barbican. That oratorio, which was enjoying its European premiere, describes Jesus’ crucifixion and was designed to be a companion piece to El Niño of 2000. Now with Christmas upon us, this nativity oratorio proved a fitting work with which to mark the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s final Southbank appearance of the year, as well as the last concert in the Centre’s 2013 The Rest is Noise series.
El Niño meditates on the period from the annunciation to the flight into Egypt by setting Gospel verses and texts representing a range of cultures and languages to music. Many are directly religious, but others are more broadly philosophical in tone while some address very recent political issues. By the time we have added in stories from the Apocrypha, which inspire a sense of child-like amazement, the oratorio has practically run the full gamut of human emotions and experiences. In this way, it may provide a metaphor for the way in which Christmas today has a reach far beyond the confines of Christianity to envelop all aspects of humanity.
The oratorio is brilliantly paced as it constantly turns the emotional colour wheel to contrast intimate moments of private reflection with more highly charged passages of anxiety or menace. Writings such as For with God nothing shall be impossible and Shake the Heavens feature an unrelenting style of music, typical of the sound that might instantly spring to mind if we were to think of minimalism. Other moments prove far lighter, with the strings backing the soloist with an ephemeral sound, only slightly punctuated on occasions by the brass or other instruments. In terms of structure and approach these passages are just as minimalist as the others, but the contrast is so immense that the resulting experience feels highly multi-faceted.
While The Gospel According to the Other Mary draws up scenes which flit between ancient Jerusalem and modern times (one, for example, occurs in a contemporary jail with a woman shrieking from drug withdrawal) in El Niño the dichotomy between ancient and modern does not feel so clear cut. The texts come from a variety of eras, which makes the messages that are proclaimed feel universal rather than merely contemporary.
Unlike The Gospel, which featured dancers, and the original production of El Niño, which had live movement and film (courtesy of director Peter Sellars in both instances), this evening was presented as any more traditional oratorio would be. This actually worked because it gave greater opportunity for the singers to engage directly with the audience, providing us with the means with which to make sense of all we were told, but not overtly directing us to think and feel certain things. One particular delight was hearing the words of writers of whom I (like many of the audience) knew nothing before. In particular, the Mexican writer Rosario Castellanos’ poem La anunciación provided lines (such as ‘My solitude was a passage through darkness, an impetus of inconsolable fever’) that stunned with their richness, even when only understood through reading the surtitles.
Vladimir Jurowski conducted with surety and a steely command of the oratorio’s meanings, while soloists Rosemary Joshua, Matthew Rose, and the three superb countertenors Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Steven Rickards all performed at the height of their game. Even amidst such a strong set of performances, special mention should go to Kelley O’Connor whose mezzo-soprano had a ringing depth that became appropriately lighter, while still maintaining its essential nature, in the upper register. The London Philharmonic Choir, Coloma St Cecilia Singers and Trinity Boys Choir all played their part to the full, with the latter two bringing the entire evening to a stunning conclusion with their performance of another Castellanos poem, Una palmera, accompanied simply by a guitar.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk.