A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

The May 31 world premiere of The Gospel According to the Other Mary by John Adams with Gustavo Dudamel, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Master Chorale at Walt Disney Concert Hall will mark a defining moment in the soundscape of our time.

The work, commissioned by the LA Phil, is based on the harrowing stories of Lazarus and Jesus as told by Mary Magdalene, Lazarus’ sister who stood by Jesus through the crucifixion.  We were immediately aware that this story transcended its traditional telling as Mary reacts to the suffering of her brother Lazarus screaming in agony from addiction and withdrawal in a jail cell.

The libretto by Peter Sellars will likely rekindle the historic controversies around his and Adams’ unique art.  The multilingual text is interspersed with fascinating passages taken from sources that include writers such as Dorothy Day, Rosario Castellanos and Louise Erdrich, among others.  The perspective is unique.  The result was an insightful psychological study on the effects of a loved ones’ suffering on those close to them.

As in his El Niño, Adams called on a trio of countertenors to serve as narrators.  Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley produced an alluring, almost angelic effect that was irresistible to the ear.  Their blended voices were transcendent.

Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor was superb in her role as Mary.  She captured the essence of a pathologically dramatic character unable to cope with the events around her.  O’Connor’s unrestrained evocations were stirring.  Mary’s sister Martha was portrayed by contralto Tamara Mumford, who sang with a confidence in her beautiful arias that offered counterpoint to the crises around her.

Tenor Russell Thomas was wonderfully evocative in his portrayal of Lazarus.  He was a huge force among the voices that totally captured the power of Lazarus’ catharsis.  His voice filled the entire hall with its resounding intensity as he asked the loaded question from Primo Levi’s poem Passover: “How is this night different from all other nights?”  Thomas, the music and the context made a beautiful moment.

Another powerful presence came from the Master Chorale.  I was particularly impressed by a segment where they simulated an approaching and increasingly agitated crowd with indistinct vocal sibilance in a long crescendo.  The effect added a genuine realism to the affect of the moment.  The audio reinforcement was so subtle that it was imperceptible and completely effective.

Concertmaster Martin Chalifour led a relatively small string section, and the woodwinds were tripled in all sections.  The brass section was small with only two trumpets, two trombones and four horns.  The percussion was heavily metallic.

The role of the low brass was supplanted with an electric bass guitar.  Michael Valerio’s six-string electric bass was a potent presence, as its sharp attacks and electric timbre added a nice dimension to the sound. Adams’ writing for the instrument was convincing and functional, never pushing into a pop style; and Valerio was masterful.

Chester Englander played a significant role with his cimbalom, an ancient type of Mediterranean hammered dulcimer, that communicated a unique energy with a connotation harkening back in time.  The distinctive motor-rhythmic hammering carried the opening scenes and set a distinctive context.  It mixed well with piano and harp, and Adams used it effectively as both background and foreground, as well as to add accents.

The Principals were brilliant, and Adams wrote extensively for each of them, mostly in fully exposed, short snippets.  Whitney Crockett’s bassoon solos were superb; he was nimble throughout the entire range of his instrument, and he made Adams’ occasional bended pitches artfully grotesque when needed.  A touch of Americana came from trumpeter James Wilt’s tuneful solo passages that had a tone that was mellow and stylish.  Trombonist James Miller stood out.  The French horns had a heavy workout; they blended beautifully among themselves and also with the other sections, and soloist Andrew Bain was outstanding throughout the night.  Clarinetist Michele Zukovsky added an interesting surprise with her poignant klezmer motif.  I particularly enjoyed hearing flutist Catherine Ransom Karoly in a driving solo ostinato figure that was emotion-packed; its intensity and quality in the low register were sublime.

The music seemed to flow through Dudamel, leaving him to react with the rest of us.  I heard an orchestra that intuitively expressed a music like no other.  Dudamel’s full minute of silent stillness at the end was a genuinely effective coda.  A pallid mood lingered throughout the bows and acknowledgements.

What a fantastic ending to a hugely ambitious and phenomenally successful season.  The significance of this performance will take time to register.  Sellars will stage the work again in Disney Hall and then on tour with the orchestra next season.  Hopefully there will be no editing of this profound modern masterpiece.

Bravo to Adams and Sellars for a monumental achievement and magnificent contribution to contemporary music.  Bravo to Dudamel, our LA Phil, the Master Chorale and all of the soloists for an inspired performance.

~Theodore Bell/Culture Spot LA