12/13 John Adam’s El Nino @ Carnegie Hall
Orchestra of St. Luke’s
Most Christmas songs about the Nativity story put me in mind of a medieval painting – the infant Jesus with a halo, Mary in beautiful blue, looking serene. John Adam’s El Nino put me strongly in mind of the recent movie “The Nativity Story”, a realistic, no frills account of the humans involved in the birth of Christ. John Adams brought the same sensibility to his Nativity oratorio, using a variety of Hispanic poetry about birth and multiple biblical accounts to give personality to the story. The result was a serious, emotional, and reverential treatment of one of the most well-known stories ever told. Adams originally composed the work in 2000 as a “Christmas oratorio for the new millenium”, and I think he accomplished that goal.
The piece was set for a large orchestra (the impressive St. Luke’s Orchestra) with a choir and 6 vocal soloists- a bass-baritone, 3 countertenors, mezzo-soprano, and soprano. Each voice sang a different role (the most interesting casting being the 3 countertenors as the angel Gabriel-ethereal, to be certain), but was not confined to that role alone. The chorus seemed to play the part of the shepherds or angels, echoing the soloists or singing choruses in great waves of sound. Their parts and strength in 4. For with God no thing shall be impossible and 9.Shake the Heavens were powerful and reverential, echoing a faith both modern and ancient. Dawn Upshaw, singing mostly as Mary, portrayed the excitement as well as the confusion and sorrow of the young mother well in a vocal part full of interval leaps. Michelle DeYoung was a powerful narrator, mostly in Spanish, while bass baritone Eric Owens had a solid stage presence, mostly singing the role of Joseph. The three counter tenors, Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, and Steven Rickards sang well together, sounding otherworldly as the angel Gabriel. They also took an interesting turn as the 3 kings (I’m not sure if Adams was using the voices he had here or was trying to suggest something about the role the kings played…)
The orchestral accompaniment to the singers drew from a variety of sources, occasionally suggesting Latin rhythms and Baroque sounds, while at other times offering more murky modern sounds (although staying largely within the conventional sounds of the instruments.) The orchestra definitely functioned as the accompanist in the piece – the real drama was among the solo singers, but they did a fine job in support, helping to create an emotional atmosphere.
Adams’ piece offered an interesting, updated version of the Christmas story, although it was far too long. I thought it would have been perfect if the piece had ended at intermission, with the birth of Christ. While I was enthralled with the first “act”, my attention wandered during the second, especially as the piece went on what I felt were tangents that did not move it forward. The first half had a strong narrative drive, while the second seemed to move at a much more languid pace, finally ending with stories of Jesus from unpublished Gospels. However, the applause Adams earned from an enthusiastic crowd was certainly merited, and the length of the piece did not take away from its value as a significant oratorio for today.
For someone who dreads “Christmas music” and its trite tinny sound, El Niño was a refreshing reminder of the power and humanity of the story that started it all.