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"El Nino' Storms Davies
John Adams' complex Nativity vocal work has many beauties
Allan Ulrich, Chronicle Music Critic
Saturday, January 13, 2001
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle
The most eagerly anticipated musical event of the winter season, John Adams' often ravishing full-length "El Nino," swept into Davies Symphony Hall on Thursday evening, the multiple allusions of the title intact, the manifest beauties of this Nativity story expounded by the co-commissioning San Francisco Symphony. The performance also boasted a sextet of extraordinary singers and guest conductor Kent Nagano, the same artists who participated in the world premiere at Paris' Chatelet Theater on De. 15.
Part opera, part oratorio, part passion and (thanks to director Peter Sellars) part audiovisual treatise, "El Nino" may divide audiences who have already pigeonholed Adams. One might expect such a response to a composer who has not ceased growing or reconfiguring his profile (from minimalist to unclassifiable neo-romantic) in the two decades since he became the S.F. Symphony's first composer-in-residence. The collaborators in this venture received a standing ovation after Thursday's first North American performance, but the full house had grown noticeably thinner by the conclusion of the two- part, 2 1/2-hour premiere.
That Adams' fully tonal style caresses and often challenges the ear cannot be denied. That listeners will wrestle with categorization at the expense of wrapping themselves in the work is also true.
That would be a pity. "El Nino" may not be a perfectly structured work, but its devotional, reflective tone places it squarely in the line of such 19th century vocal-choral masterpieces as Berlioz's "L'Enfance du Christ" and "La Damnation de Faust."
The piece both falls into the oratorio tradition and departs significantly from it. Sellars and Adams have drawn their texts from several sources, guided throughout by the desire to humanize the Nativity story, to place its miracles in a resolutely contemporary, multicultural context, one that will probably strike Californians with special fervor.
The libretto includes excerpts from the King James Version of the Bible, as well as the Gnostic Gospels (the accounts omitted from the New Testament), Martin Luther's Christmas sermon and the Wakefield Mystery Plays. Interspersed are fragments by the medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen and Spanish verse by the 17th century nun Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz and more contemporary poets -- Gabriela Mistral, Ruben Dario, Vicente Huidobro and Rosario Castellanos.
The Annunciation, for example, is delivered in the guise of a poem by Castellanos, with a relationship between narrator and deity that recalls Martin Buber's theology. The Slaughter of the Innocents segues from the relevant passages from Matthew to Castellanos' "Memorandum on Tlatelolco," a shattering memoir of a quelling of a youth rebellion in Mexico in 1968, to a fragment of Isaiah. Projected multilanguage titles solve problems of comprehension.
Adams also allies himself with the great European ecclesiastical tradition. He has set the Magnificat text for soprano and he finds a connection with Handel's "Messiah" in the punchy rhythms of the baritone's "Shake the Heavens. " The humanizing elements are touching. Much is made of Joseph's bewilderment when he learns of Mary's pregnancy, and there's an episode of enormous, tension-breaking charm near the end of Jesus quelling the dragons. The gentle ending with a children's chorus (members of Robert Geary's Piedmont Choirs), accompanied by solo guitar, shimmers quietly and takes you by surprise.
Apportioning duties between soprano, mezzo-soprano and baritone without consistently assigning them roles permits Adams maximum flexibility. What is new in "El Nino" is the character of the vocal writing. The staccato rhythms of "Nixon in China" (1987) and the quasi-oriental melismatic style of "The Death of Klinghoffer" (1991) have yielded to more striking, wide-leaping intervals. In certain episodes, like the Annunciation, which mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson delivered with incendiary power, the vocal line seems the most conventionally operatic Adams has yet penned.
The texture of "El Nino" achieves a new kind of eloquence for Adams. The almost medieval harmonies assigned to a consort of three countertenors from Paul Hillier's Theatre of Voices -- Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, Steven Rickards, all exceptionally mellifluous and wondrously pristine in projection - - lends a serene, otherworldly quality to much of the work. The delicacy of the orchestral writing -- an ominous bassoon flourish here, a guitar interjection there, a trombone harmony -- lingers in the mind; amplification and sampling are deployed discreetly.
Adams savors the possibilities of economy here. The emotional potency to be derived from a single triad is still tremendous. To confuse simplicity with naivete would be to deny the composer the essence of his style. Still, "El Nino" is not perfect. The thread almost snaps in the second part, and despite soprano Dawn Upshaw's marvelously soulful performance of "Memorandum on Tlatelolco," she cannot disguise the fact that this particular setting occasionally descends into empty rhetoric.
Baritone Willard White reveals just the right note of edgy sobriety for Joseph and Herod. There can be nothing but praise for Vance George's Symphony Chorus (who are not wearing the uniform costumes they sported in Paris), yet diction was not consistently clear. Nagano led a stirring reading, although the metrical contrasts might be more sharply delineated.
What is good about "El Nino" is haunting. There is still time to reconsider aspects of the work (though Nonesuch recorded it in Paris during its run). Performances are set for New York next season, and three European cities later on, and it doubtlessly will be given in Sellars' adopted city of Los Angeles, after the Disney Concert Hall opens in 2003. However, the semistaging, with performers in casual clothes and singers in bare feet, will remain a matter of controversy. Sellars' gestural language for the vocalists and three dancers -- Daniela Graca, Nora Kimball, Michael Schumacher -- and the twitchy choreography aptly suggest the ritualized language of a classic mystery play and, sometimes, as in the episode of the Mexico City massacre, the violent, reiterated movement supplies the requisite tone even better than the score. But the continuously running silent film (directed by Sellars and Yreina D. Cervantez) is problematic. The movie transplants the Nativity story to the Latino community of Southern California, finds parallels to the characters in the musical narrative and sometimes features dancers shadowing their live gestures.
Sellars intends a kind of flickering tapestry of faith here, and he is undoubtedly sincere about every frame. But the device backfires. Demystification slips over into banality. Sellars may believe in the universal possibilities of miracles, but once you see Christmas lights hanging from palm trees, you can't help thinking of all those black velvet religious icons. Surely that can't be the intended response. The movie competes for attention and loses. When, writhing on the floor, Lieberson launches into the Annunciation, in what may be the greatest performance of this distinguished artist's career, she alone imparts a touch of the divine.
EL NINO: The San Francisco Symphony repeats John Adams' work at 8 p.m. tonight at Davies Symphony Hall. Tickets $15-$85. Call (415) 864-6000 or www. sfsymphony.org.
E-mail Allan Ulrich at aulrichsfchronicle.com.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle Page E1