Catholic Tastes

Child's Play: The Brooklyn Youth Chorus performs El Niño while director Peter Sellars plays with video.Photo: Stephanie Berger

Lincoln Center’s salute to John Adams, still in progress, is not so much a celebration as an anointment, advertised as the largest New York festival ever dedicated to a living composer. And why not? At age 56, Adams has produced an extensive and varied body of work that is performed everywhere; his music attracts important musicians, most of it has been recorded, and it appeals to a broad range of tastes. Although educated in the school of American minimalism, Adams long ago worked his way out of that restrictive style. Unlike Philip Glass, apparently doomed to recycle the same stale McMinimalism for the rest of his life, and Steve Reich, now an inventor of pure contraption rather than real music, Adams continues to grow and find new directions.

The centerpiece in this tribute took place at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, two performances of the Nativity oratorio El Niño, which was first heard in Paris in December 2000. As one who has always been less convinced by Adams’s works for voice than by his instrumental scores, I found El Niño to be a major breakthrough. The music is impressive, not only for the grace and expressive quality of the vocal writing but also for its extraordinary richness of allusive detail and a technical confidence that shapes many diverse stylistic references into a deeply satisfying unity.

Using texts taken or adapted from the Bible, the Apocrypha, early Christian writers, and, most strikingly, Latin American poets, the oratorio is more a meditation on the Nativity, motherhood, and the mystery of birth in general than a chronological narration of familiar biblical events. Benjamin Britten’s scores built around various poetical sources may have been a model here, but the musical references range widely: Handel’s Messiah, medieval polyphony, American pop, Latin street music, and just about any composer one can think of who has ever been stirred by this universal subject. Whatever influences he may have absorbed, Adams has a compositional voice strong enough to dominate the material, and the music is full of his characteristic rhythmic charge, instrumental playfulness, surprising melodic twists, and a childlike sense of wonder and sweetness. Instead of conveying any specific religious message, the whole piece projects a genuine sense of mystical awe that is irresistible.

In most respects, the presentation at BAM captured this quality beautifully. The vocal soloists—Dawn Upshaw, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Willard White, and three countertenors from Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices—were totally immersed in the music, having already performed the piece many times since the Paris premiere, and Esa-Pekka Salonen, conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Master Chorale, is a practiced and sympathetic Adams interpreter. The onstage movement devised by Peter Sellars had a music all its own, one that uncannily reflected the spirit of the piece. Unfortunately, Sellars was also responsible for the distracting silent film that unfolded above the singers throughout the performance, a clumsily edited, artily self-conscious affair that portrays Mary and Joseph as a contemporary Chicano couple in grubby Southern California settings. Apparently, Sellars’s imposing directorial talents do not extend to the screen—even the films of his stunning opera productions are disappointing. In any case, El Niño—a work that will surely enjoy a long life based on its musical merits—needs no visual assistance.

Next season, Adams takes over the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall, a spot soon to be vacated by Pierre Boulez. Sending the French composer off in style, Carnegie presented a weekend of his works with Boulez leading the Ensemble Intercontemporain. The first program consisted of Anthèmes II and Répons, the latter among his most ambitious large-scale works for instruments and electronics. Indeed, the seats in the parquet area had to be taken out of service to accommodate the piece’s spatial effects as produced by a chamber orchestra and the six soloists positioned in the audience. These soloists are “wired,” and their playing is fed via microphones into a computer, which can amplify, transform, and diffuse the sound around the hall.

I wrote sourly of this particular Boulez extravagance when it was last done here, seventeen years ago up at the Columbia University Gymnasium, finding it a sad decline from the colorful fantasy and creative energy of his earlier works. And it still strikes me as an overlong bubble bath of tremolos, passing notes, appoggiaturas, slides, mordents, cadential flourishes, and other agréments de musique elaborately embellishing nothing at all—fake tinsel cleverly draped over real tinsel. That is clearly a minority opinion, since a full house greeted the composer ecstatically.

Not to be outdone in the festival department, the New York Philharmonic recently threw a lavish birthday party for Mstislav Rostropovich, who turned 76 on March 27. The great cellist-conductor took on most of the celebratory chores himself, leading all the orchestral concerts as well as participating in a few chamber-music programs, clearly enjoying every minute. I wonder if any living musician of his stature has been friends with more major contemporary composers or coaxed more important new music from them. All the concerts reflected this, and the first one was especially rich, from Leonard Bernstein’s opening jeu d’esprit, the “political overture” Slava!, composed in honor of Rostropovich, to Witold Lutoslawski’s brilliant Concerto for Orchestra.

In between came Prokofiev’s virtuoso Third Piano Concerto with young Konstantin Lifschitz eating up the keyboard in grand style, and Henri Dutilleux’s haunting Timbres, Espace, Mouvement, ou “La Nuit Étoilée,” which so magically evokes the startling nocturnal imagery and movement of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. How lovely that Dutilleux, at age 87, could be on hand to hear his old pal conduct this remarkable score and, no doubt, enjoy such a carefully prepared, skillfully played performance.

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El Niño
By John Adams; conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Pierre Boulez
A tribute at Carnegie Hall.

Mstislav Rostropovich
A tribute by the New York Philharmonic.

Catholic Tastes