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John Adams's New "Gospel" "Contains Some of the Strongest, Most Impassioned Music of His Career" (The New Yorker)

John Adams profile

The music of composer John Adams has featured prominently in California concert calendars of late, with notable premieres of his work taking place on both ends of the state over the past two weeks. On May 31–June 3, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and conductor Gustavo Dudamel gave the world premiere of the composer's new oratorio, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, at Walt Disney Concert Hall. This past weekend brought the Bay Area premiere of Adams's first opera, Nixon in China, with the San Francisco Opera giving the first of seven performances of the piece at War Memorial Opera House on Friday. Both events have been met with critical acclaim.

While Adams's 2000 piece El Niño was his take on a Nativity oratorio with a libretto by Peter Sellars, The Gospel According to the Other Mary is their vision of a Passion, juxtaposing Biblical narratives with contemporary meditations, images, and challenging experiences. Sellars’ new libretto includes words of five extraordinary women—Louise Erdrich, Dorothy Day, Rosario Castellanos, June Jordan, and Hildegard—which are set by Adams. Following the recent concert premiere performances, Dudamel and the LA Phil will give the world staged premiere in Los Angeles in March 2013.

"The modernist tradition of the dark sacred, of the radical sublime, is alive and well," writes The New Yorker's Alex Ross in his review of the premiere of the new work, which "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."

Ross describes "a fantastically varied sound-world" in Adams's Gospel score. The final scene of Act I left him with "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, equaling the impact of 'Batter my heart,' the surging finale of Act I of Doctor Atomic," Adams's 2005 opera.

The review concludes with Ross calling The Gospel According to the Other Mary "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."

Read the complete review in the latest issue of The New Yorker, which is on newsstands now. Subscribers can read the article online at newyorker.com.

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"A dozen years ago, composer John Adams and librettist Peter Sellars reinvented the Nativity oratorio with El Niño, a brilliantly innovative work that fused biblical and contemporary texts in revelatory ways," writes the San Francisco Chronicle's Joshua Kosman. "Now they've given the piece a fittingly dynamic counterpart."

Kosman finds the new piece to be "by turns fierce and lyrical, a twin meditation on charity and death. And both formally and thematically, it serves as a reply to Bach's Passions in much the same way that El Niño did for Handel's Messiah ... [M]uch of The Gospel finds Adams at his most evocative and inventive."

Read the concert review at sfgate.com.

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Closer to home for Kosman was Friday's Bay Area premiere of Nixon in China by the San Francisco Opera. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the landmark work, which features a libretto by Alice Goodman, and the 40th anniversary of the events it depicts: President Richard Nixon's visit to China. This production, which premiered at the Vancouver Opera for the 2010 Cultural Olympiad, is helmed by director Michael Cavanagh, with conductor Lawrence Renes at the podium. Performances resume this Thursday and run through July 3.

In the quarter century since its premiere, "Nixon has taken its rightful place as one of the great operas of the latter part of the 20th century," writes Kosman in his review in the San Francisco Chronicle. "And Friday's performance at the War Memorial Opera House came as a welcome reminder of how audacious and yet assured this work is."

He goes on to say that " what continues to amaze is the inventiveness with which Adams—who was on hand Friday to receive thunderous applause—forged a wholly new operatic language in this score. The music for Nixon fuses the rhythmic propulsiveness and large-scale thinking of minimalism with a sumptuous expressive vein out of Wagner, Sibelius and Richard Strauss."

Read the review at sfgate.com.

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The San Jose Mercury News music critic Richard Scheinin says that, for all the production's elements that "dazzled and entertained," it is Adams's music "that towers over all of it. For 2 1/2 hours, the score is multigeared, multicolored, transforming like a kaleidoscopic engine. It spins through Philip Glass-inspired minimalism and touches on big band swing, Glenn Miller serenades, grinding rhythm and blues and Beethovenian weather. Like a jazz musician, Adams is always quoting and alluding: You hear traces of Hoagy Carmichael, of Duke Ellington." Read the review at mercurynews.com.

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For more information and tickets to the San Francisco Opera production of Nixon in China, go to sfopera.com. To pick up a copy of last year's reissue of the 1987 original cast recording of Nixon in China, head to the Nonesuch Store now.

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