by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, June 18, 2012.
When composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries entered the shadow realm of dissonance, they often went in quest of emotional extremes. So it was with Strauss’s “Salome,” Schoenberg’s “Erwartung,” Berg’s “Wozzeck,” and other landmarks of modernism. Yet the progression toward atonality also had a mystical aspect: these uncanny new chords could serve as esoteric icons, emblems of the sacred. Such is the import of certain late works of Liszt, of Scriabin’s music of divine ecstasy, of the occultist pieces that Satie wrote for the Rosicrucian theatre of Joséphin Péladan. Schoenberg’s atonal language found its ultimate purpose in the opening measures of his opera “Moses und Aron,” where hexachords represent God speaking through the burning bush. Twentieth-century composers went on to create a staggering corpus of sacred music, arguably eclipsing the production of the preceding century. Even secular-minded artists like György Ligeti and Morton Feldman wrote works of a spiritual nature, perhaps because their chosen language drew them toward the unsayable.
John Adams has described himself as a “secular liberal living in Berkeley, California,” yet he, too, has tilted toward sacred subjects. His opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” juxtaposes Jewish and Islamic theology, and his opera-oratorio “El Niño” gives a contemporary spin to the Nativity story. “Doctor Atomic,” Adams’s opera about the Trinity test, has religious overtones. In part, these themes stem from the preoccupations of the director Peter Sellars, Adams’s longtime collaborator, who has sought to engage with various spiritual traditions in a theatrical vision informed by social activism. All along, though, Adams has shown a mystic bent: the sumptuous tonal chords of early pieces such as “Harmonium” and “Harmonielehre” come across as apparitions or illuminations, to use favored words of Olivier Messiaen, the leading religious composer of the past century.
Adams’s latest work, “The Gospel According to the Other Mary,” had its première at the end of May, in Walt Disney Concert Hall, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel. A Passion play in all but name, it is a huge, strange, turbulent creation, brushing against chaos. The modernist tradition of the dark sacred, of the radical sublime, is alive and well; a composer who started out as an acolyte of Boulez, Stockhausen, and Cage has rediscovered his avant-garde roots, and those who prize him as an audience-friendly neo-Romantic are in for some shocks. Although the structure is unwieldy and overloaded—the first performance lasted nearly three hours, intermission included, and a good portion of the audience didn’t stay to the end—it contains some of the strongest, most impassioned music of Adams’s career. Above all, it is a work of daring: a popular, celebrated artist has set aside familiar devices and stepped into the unknown.
The libretto of “The Other Mary,” which Sellars devised in consultation with Adams, depicts the last days of Christ from the perspective of the three people devoted to him: Martha, her brother Lazarus, and their sister Mary, who, following an old Catholic tradition, is conflated with Mary Magdalene. Jesus is quoted, but does not sing. Much of the familiar drama of the Crucifixion—the betrayal of Jesus, the trial under Pontius Pilate, the selection of Barabbas, and so on—is absent; instead, passages from the Old and New Testaments, focussing on inward matters of life, death, doubt, and faith, are intermingled with religiously tinged poems by Rosario Castellanos, Rubén Darío, Primo Levi, June Jordan, and, most crucially, the Native American writer Louise Erdrich. (There are four pieces from her 1989 collection, “Baptism of Desire.”) Sellars’s riskiest move is to incorporate writings of the radical Catholic activist Dorothy Day, letting Mary and Martha voice Day’s journals and commentaries in turn: the sisters become fighters for social justice, Mary prone to wild emotion, Martha steadier and steelier. Day is a mighty figure, but her hortatory prose is not easily made into music, and these sections tend to be weaker than the rest.
Adams’s orchestra is not large by modern standards: twelve woodwinds, eight brass, and the usual complement of strings. (Beethoven used similar forces for his Ninth Symphony.) There is, however, a major battery of percussion, including a forest of Almglocken, tuned gongs, and tam-tams. The most novel timbres come from a quartet of piano, harp, bass electric guitar, and cimbalom—the hammered dulcimer that Stravinsky memorably employed in “Renard” and “Ragtime.” As in “El Niño,” a trio of countertenors supplies much of the Biblical exposition. In all, it is a fantastically varied sound-world, running the gamut from the neo-medieval harmonies of the high male voices to the end-times funk of the bass guitar, with the twang of the cimbalom lending a gritty exoticism to almost every page of the score.
The work begins in spectacularly abrupt fashion, with slashing chords and the words “The next day in the city jail we were searched for drugs.” (This is from Day’s recollection of a humiliating imprisonment that she experienced in her radical youth.) The chorus interjects an apocalyptic prophecy from Isaiah—“Howl ye; for the day of the Lord is at hand”—while the horns bellow in dissonant proximity to each other, and the winds and strings scurry underneath. The two female leads are introduced, and a Spanish-language chorus sways, buoyantly, in a minor mode. It is in the third scene, devoted to the raising of Lazarus, that “The Other Mary” is overtaken by a divine weirdness. Rapid arpeggios accumulate into a Ligeti-like fog, suggesting the wafting away of a life; woodwind glissandos hint at decomposition (“Lord, by this time he stinketh”); and a moaning, muttering, and shouting chorus evokes fear and awe before the awakening of the dead. Few musical works have conveyed so vividly the fundamental spookiness of the idea of resurrection.
The sequence that follows is more conventional, at least within the intricate, collagelike template established by Adams and Sellars in “El Niño.” There is an austerely dancing chorus in the vein of Lou Harrison (“Drop down, ye heavens”); Lazarus sings a raw, rollicking aria of celebration; and Mary tears into Erdrich’s poem “Mary Magdalene” (“I will drive boys / to smash empty bottles on their brows”), with the chorus declaiming Hildegard von Bingen’s medieval text “Spiritus Sanctus” behind her. One gnashing dissonance in this passage comes out of Beethoven’s “Eroica.” The final scene of Act I, dedicated to the Last Supper, starts haltingly, with Dorothy Day’s prickly defense of her focus on poverty during the Second World War, and then takes wing, with a sublimely songful setting of Primo Levi’s “Passover.” Listening to the latter, I had the thought that, in an alternate existence, Adams might have had a career like that of Sondheim, writing musical theatre at an exalted level. But the orchestral postlude for the scene could never play on Broadway: forty-two visionary bars in harmonic limbo, with piercing chords for the brass and with strings pulsing in heartbeat rhythm, all coming to rest in a Messiaen-like haze of saturated tonality. The entire sequence is a wonder, equalling the impact of “Batter my heart,” the surging finale of Act I of “Doctor Atomic.”
Act II opens with a ferocious Erdrich chorus (“Orozco’s Christ”) and another momentum-slowing Dorothy Day disquisition, recounting her arrest during a 1973 United Farm Workers action in Salinas Valley. This is the final lull: from the first bars of the Golgotha scene to the end, “The Other Mary” moves on a very high imaginative plane. Low gongs, bass guitar, and the soft screech of a bowed tam-tam create a cavernous aural space. Bassoons, cellos, and basses crawl through the lower register. The ranting chorus returns, now directed to be “yelling, mocking, abusive,” with a crowd of unhinged mourners ensuing. A klezmerish clarinet wails; a police whistle blows in the wake of an extended scream of lamentation. When the Virgin Mary is described as beholding her Son on the Cross, those who know “El Niño” will hear a heartbreaking echo of that work’s Mary music. Oboes and clarinets keen through a lament by Mary Magdalene, based on Erdrich’s poem “The Savior.” Ashen choirs of wind and brass mark the three days in the tomb. It is all terrifyingly beautiful.
Messiaen haunts several pages of the score, but Adams lacks his predecessor’s unquestioning belief. The Resurrection elicits no major-key blaze of glory; instead, the shadows of Golgotha simply steal away, yielding to a tableau of awakening nature, of instrumental rustling and chirping mixed with recorded sounds of frogs. The chorus, reverting to childlike innocence, delivers a crisply syncopated setting of Erdrich’s “The Sacraments” (“It is spring. The tiny frogs pull / their strange new bodies out / of the suckholes . . .”). A roar of percussion signals the earthquake that opens Christ’s tomb; then that noise, too, subsides. Mary Magdalene, near the tomb, gazes at a man whom she takes to be a gardener. “Mary,” the figure says, in the countertenors’ narration. The orchestra shimmers, shakes, and rumbles all around, with the cimbalom trilling at the center of the sound. Then it vanishes into silence.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic began rehearsing “The Other Mary” immediately after the last of a series of staged performances of “Don Giovanni”—a coolly stylized production under the direction of Christopher Alden, with arresting crumpled-paper sets by Frank Gehry. The orchestra had not been expecting Adams to deliver quite so vast a piece, and rehearsal time was limited. Under the circumstances, and, indeed, by any standard, they played magnificently; the brass section, in particular, deserves a medal for courage under fire. The vocal leads—Kelley O’Connor, as Mary; Tamara Mumford, as Martha; and Russell Thomas, as Lazarus—gave red-blooded life to elusive characters. Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, and Nathan Medley, the countertenors, sang with purity and intensity. The Los Angeles Master Chorale threw itself vehemently, even dementedly, into the proceedings. Dudamel, who apparently knew the score inside out, led with a clear, sure hand. The L.A. Phil demonstrated once again why it is the most creative, and, therefore, the best, orchestra in America.
“The Other Mary” has yet to reach its final form: when Sellars presents a full staging of the piece—first at Disney, next March, and then at Lincoln Center, later that month—it will undoubtedly change complexion. Also, because Adams wrote more quickly than he might have wished, beginning the score eighteen months ago and finishing it just three weeks before the première, he may reconsider matters large and small. Some cuts should only heighten the impact of what is already an immensely potent work, one that may prove pivotal in the composer’s output. At the age of sixty-five, Adams seems to be entering a new phase, revisiting the danger zones of twentieth-century style, and the first results are astonishing.