Review: John Adams conducts his Christmas oratorio at San Francisco Symphony
SAN FRANCISCO -- From its opening moments, with its crisp, piping rhythms, Thursday's performance of "El Niño" at Davies Symphony Hall was something extraordinary. All the performers in composer John Adam's Christmas oratorio -- and by night's end, more than 200 were involved -- seemed infected by the music's strange and startling beauties and by the clean, visceral energy that Adams brought to the performance as its conductor.
Adams' unique setting of the Nativity story -- drawing on texts from the Bible, the Apocrypha, medieval mystery plays and modern Latin American poetry -- was co-commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, which gave its first North American performances in 2001, with Kent Nagano on the podium. From the distance of nearly a decade, and with the composer now leading the orchestra in three performances, through Saturday, it stands as one of Adams' marvels.
"El Niño" easily integrates the many aspects of Adams' compositional palette, blooming into vast, golden sun-explosions at one moment, getting down with industrial-strength rhythm riffs in the next. At its best moments, and there are many, the profusions of detail in the score not only mimic natural phenomena, but give the illusion of worlds being born -- not a bad illusion to conjure in the most famous birth story of all time.
At Davies, Adams has a lot of help, not only from the orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, so finely attuned to the music's wheeling complexities, but from the remarkable soloists, who move between English and Spanish texts, while singing into wireless microphones. (Adams isn't an acoustic purist.) They include soprano Dawn Upshaw, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung (who floats among roles, including that of narrator) and bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu (as Joseph and Herod), whose supple and stone-hard declamations had the air molecules spinning in the concert hall.
This production of "El Niño" is simply staged: Mary and Joseph might be seated at a table at stage center, dressed as modern-day working folk in jeans and flannel. Surrounding them will be a trio of angels: countertenors Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Steven Rickards. Dressed all in white, as if they're about to leave for a garden party or a game of tennis, they sing in tinseled parallel harmonies -- in the opening movement, about a "matchless maiden" and the King of kings, as well as their Son.
It's exquisite, like so much of the oratorio's first half, which strikes me as the stronger portion of this more than two-hour work. Thursday, in Adams' setting of "La anunciación" by Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos, DeYoung was in sumptuous voice, evoking the "generous wines" and "balms and aromas" of the verse and its "fiery splendors."
Here, Adams' scoring touches on Mexican folk music (those fiddles and acoustic guitars) and swells into enormous ecstatic rushes as the drama accelerates.
The "Magnificat" is almost pop-hit material, in the manner of "A Simple Song" from Leonard Bernstein's "Mass." Upshaw, who owns this part, sang it with conversational ease, with her special gracious passion.
Then came Lemalu, as Joseph, returning home after six months away to find his wife pregnant: "Mary, why did you do this to me?" he declaims. It is a startling moment, personalizing the ancient mysteries -- though not as startling as what follows, when Lemalu, voicing God's words in the Old Testament Book of Haggai, threatens to "shake the heavens."
He definitely shook the concert hall.
As intermission arrived, much of the audience, it would be safe to say, was non-medicinally stoned and stunned.
In the second half of "El Niño," Adams continues to develop his exotic language, which is as sensual as it is ecstatic, spilling with melodic lines that rise and fall, pleadingly. The smell of frankincense practically hangs in the air, and stars seem to twinkle -- and the effects grow a little wearisome, especially as the texts strain to connect ancient and contemporary events.
But you should go. It ends with the voices of children; the San Francisco Girls Chorus brings prayerful innocence to this spectacle. It's a rich one, deserving multiple hearings and large audiences -- and hopefully it won't be another ten years before the return of "El Niño."