The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra returns to New York’s Carnegie Hall on March 31 to perform a major work by a composer with which music director David Robertson and the ensemble are closely associated.
Next weekend, St. Louisans get to hear it first: As part of John Adams’ 70th birthday celebration, they’ll perform his “Gospel According to the Other Mary.”
“Mary,” a contemporary take on a Lenten Passion oratorio, is a companion piece to “El Niño,” Adams’ look at the Nativity. Each offers “a modern retelling of a very ancient story,” Robertson says. There’s nothing else on the program; like a Bach Passion, it’s a full evening of music.
Longtime Adams collaborator Peter Sellars assembled the libretto from sources as diverse as the New Testament and the 20th-century writings of Dorothy Day and Primo Levi. He made changes in the biblical narrative, including combining the character of Mary Magdalene with that of Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus. Their residence is now an almshouse.
Adams says “Mary” is a big piece. “Like ‘El Niño,’ it sort of oscillates back and forth between biblical time and contemporary time. Mary Magdalene and her sister run a shelter for homeless women. That sounds a little trendy, but (the) take we have on Mary Magdalene is that she was an abused woman. We have the supposed death and resurrection of Lazarus, and Mary and Martha’s incredible anger and frustration with Jesus that he didn’t come in time” to keep his friend from dying.
“Threaded into this are these stories about Dorothy Day that come direct from her own writings,” Adams says. “The way I read it, Jesus spent his entire adult life living amongst homeless people. Dorothy Day describes homeless people: They smell, the food they eat is terrible; they’re not grateful for the care (they’re given) because they’re so angry.”
Robertson says the orchestra is sometimes “divided up into various chamber groups. The chorus is used in the same way, so at times there’s a chamber-choir feel, and at times there’s really a massed force of everyone onstage.”
There are also vocal soloists: a mezzo-soprano, a contralto, a tenor and, as in “Niño,” a trio of countertenors, taking a role equivalent to that of the Evangelist in a Bach Passion.
In this production, the singers are mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor (who originated the role of Mary), contralto Michaela Martens, tenor Jay Hunter Morris and three countertenors: Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley.
Amplification and sound design are part of Adams’ score. A cimbalom, the Central European hammered dulcimer that Adams also used in “Scheherezade.2,” lends a Middle Eastern sound.
In both “Mary” and “Niño,” Robertson says, “John is consciously using references in texture and in style that come particularly from the High Baroque.”
Aspects of Bach’s methods in the Passion oratorios are echoed here: “Instead of an aria commentary by a oboe d’amore, (there’s a) bass clarinet. The countertenors use harmonies that are very familiar but placed in a context that is quite different. I find that that sort of balancing act, between the familiar and the new, is really one that gives it an atmosphere that is much more in keeping with the deeper, darker questions that the Passion raises (compared to) the Nativity.”
For Mary and Martha, Adams uses two similar voices, a mezzo-soprano and a contralto, each stretching her usual range. “I love the fact that he’s chosen two voices that are extraordinarily similar,” Robertson says. “Of course, there is discreet amplification of the voices, so you don’t have to alter the actual sound of the voice in a number of places in order to project. There are moments in which that allows the voice to go into ranges that you would normally only perceive up close. That gives it a kind of immediacy which I think John really enjoys.”
He likes the fact that “the chorus is brought forward as an incredibly important part of the proceedings,” providing background for crowd scenes and a Greek chorus. “They become participants, and they become metaphorical; there are all these different roles that they have to play. I would say that it’s the hardest choral piece I’ve ever asked them to do.”
Although the oratorio has been presented in an operatic version, Robertson decided against using any kind of staging: The piece “has many moments that require contemplation on the part of the person experiencing the story — and Adams’ musical interludes are absolutely spectacular in giving a listener the time and the space, and indeed the kind of musical frame in which to think about the things that they have just heard in words.”
The effect of those interludes, he says, “is a thing that really takes one to the cosmic scale of existence. It really is (what) music can do where it crosses beyond the boundary of what we can express with words.”
For him, Robertson says, “it makes the piece deeply spiritual.”