You have no time to settle in and get comfortable. From the very opening seconds, beginning with emphatic orchestral chords, quickly followed by the “shrieks of a woman in drug withdrawal” in a jail cell, you’re pulled immediately into what proves to be a very intense drama–or series of dramatic scenes–that really doesn’t let up for this work’s entire 133 minutes. I suppose in some way it could have been an opera–except that there’s no actual plot or dialogue–rather there are episodes and utterances, described and expressed either by a chorus, a group of countertenors, or an individual character–Mary Magdalene, Martha, Lazarus. Peter Sellars chose texts from the Old and New Testaments, and from works by Dorothy Day, Louise Erdrich, PrimoRead more Levi, Rosario Castellanos, June Jordan, Hildegard von Bingen, and Rubén Dario.
John Adams’ music is gripping, charged with a relentless energy that had me thinking a lot of Stravinsky–both of the Rite’s rawness and violence and of the quirky, characterful rhythms of Les Noces. I wouldn’t call this a “passion oratorio”–you can’t really follow the passion story in the traditional sense; there are too many interruptions and imaginings (such as the totally made up idea that Mary and her sister Martha are running a home for homeless and unemployed women).
I really like the inclusion of the Lazarus scenes for their foreshadowing of Christ’s own death and resurrection and for the touching and telling portrayals of the women who are so central to this drama, and the addition of this material, along with the vivid accounts by Dorothy Day of violence, arrests, and mistreatment related to United Farm Workers demonstrations do have a direct connection to Bach’s incorporation of non-Biblical poetic texts in his oratorios. But there’s a different agenda here that takes this subject into distinctly modern territory and imposes a political message that’s completely aside from the baroque passion-oratorio model. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Adams and Sellars have ingeniously transformed and made relevant–and maybe even a little controversial–an old, traditional, justifiably revered, and decidedly uncontroversial musical/theatrical genre. And when you hear it, you can easily understand why reviews of the concert performances tended to be so excited and positive. This is very exciting music that keeps the listener in mind–that is, Adams doesn’t seem to forget that to keep people in their seats you have to give them something not only listenable, but sensible, from a story-telling standpoint.
And of course, you need a cast of singers and an ensemble of instrumentalists who can bring it all home. There’s not really a weak link here in that regard, and my only complaint, the only place where this impressive music drama falters, is during the couple of extended Lazarus arias, which, devoid of tunes, just come off as torturous, wounded, strained utterances that go on and on until you just want them to stop. You can’t just write endless, meandering lines and expect listeners to follow happily into a thorny thicket of anguish without a reward–especially when you can’t understand anything the singer is saying. I fast-forwarded through these sections.
There’s one other thing: the title. Sellars and Adams obviously intend their reference to “the other Mary” to mean Mary Magdalene. However, this is at odds with actual Biblical citations. Six Marys are mentioned in the New Testament, and among them Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene are always clearly identified. In the book of Matthew there are several references to Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary”. This “other Mary” happens to be the mother of James, a sister of Mary the mother of Jesus. Those familiar with these well-known Biblical references will just have to accept that either Adams and Sellars chose to ignore them for some artistic purpose or were truly ignorant of them.
None of this takes away from the powerful musical/dramatic show these seasoned collaborators–plus their talented cohort Gustavo Dudamel and his choral and orchestral forces–bring to bear. It’s a grand work that, well, really rocks. And I’m sure that its greatest benefits would be realized by seeing it performed live. You can sense the potential on these CDs, but you suspect that what’s been created is much bigger than can be contained in your home sound system.
The Gospel According to the Other Maryby John Adams Performer:
Nathan Medley (Countertenor),
Daniel Bubeck (Countertenor),
Brian Cummings (Countertenor),
Kelley O'Connor (Mezzo Soprano),
Tamara Mumford (Mezzo Soprano),
Russell Thomas (Tenor)
Los Angeles Master Chorale,
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
Average Customer Review: ( 3 Customer Reviews )
Political Correctness Strikes BackApril 12, 2014By M. Ritchie (Russellville, AR)See All My Reviews"I have no problem with the performance of the music. John Adams continues to surprise and develop in his approach to composition. Dudamel masterfully conducts. The lyrics are another matter. Similar to Philip Glass' "Waiting for the Barbarians," the libretto reflects America's obsession with torture. Perhaps that is what this nation deserves, for letting its intelligence service so gleefully participate in an unjust law during a time of terror."Report Abuse
Adams best workApril 8, 2014By L. Torrence (Matthews , NC)See All My Reviews"This is a stunning work both musically and sonically. I recommend this to anyone who likes twenty first century choral music."Report Abuse
Contemporary MasterpieceMarch 7, 2014By Kiki G. See All My Reviews"I'm biased, as I'm affiliated with both the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. I saw all performances of this work except for one, plus a reprise at Ravinnia without the LA Phil. I have a little ADD. Full disclosure. To me, this work is like meditation. Hard at first. You may be distracted. Don't get it. Engaged at times. Other times want to get up and walk away. But the more time you spend with this work, the greater the unfolding. Many layers--perhaps not all conscious by the composer when he wrote this. Only with the performance and the investment by the amazing soloists, the LA Phil and the LAMC did the fullness of the work become evident to everyone. For me, one of those works that changed me forever. I think perhaps some of the artists on this recording may say the same thing. I am so grateful the world now can hear this recorded version."Report Abuse