Two concerts at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, March 27 and 28, 2013
John Adams and Peter Sellars – The Gospel According to the Other Mary
Kelley O’Connor – Mary
Tamara Mumford – Martha
Russell Thomas – Lazarus
Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, and Nathan Medley, Narrators
Los Angeles Master Chorale
Claude Vivier – Zipangu (1980)
Claude Debussy – La Mer
Stravinsky – The Firebird (“complete” version)
In order to be great, a musician or musical institution needs a defining trait or sense of purpose.1 But the Los Angeles Philharmonic, it seems to me, is currently a work in progress. Its leader, the immensely talented Gustavo Dudamel, has already (and almost automatically) placed a unique stamp on the orchestra’s repertory by introducing or elevating the status of hitherto underrepresented music by Latin American composers, much of it brilliantly attractive and original. But in its pair of concerts in New York, such repertory was absent. In its place were works that made two kinds of claims: contemporary works that speak to the present moment in innovative ways (the Adams and the Vivier);2 and works that have the status of bedrock orchestral classics (Debussy and Stravinsky) which, just a short time ago, were still being viewed as innovative. All were performed with a freshness, enthusiasm, and conviction that were palpable; the skills of the individual players and the virtues of the ensemble were evident at every turn. Both performances were sold out, and there was a feeling in the over-crowded Fisher Hall lobby that verged almost on hysteria; Dudamel is a true rock-star of the classical music crowd.
One was left, however, with a strange sense of not getting quite a complete picture. I have been pondering this curious contradiction for the past month, and am still trying to put my finger on the reason. In the case of the “classics,” I think it comes down to this: the performances were exciting and very satisfying in the moment, but left me with no new insights or ideas about the music itself. In La Mer, Dudamel coaxed restrained, atmospheric playing that caught the shimmer and seduction of Debussy’s orchestral textures; and when the first and third movements reached their climaxes, the brass choir emerged in a richly-voiced choral worthy of Bruckner. Everything was beautifully played and lucidly presented, the balances were ideal, the pacing was well thought out. What was lacking, however, was the sense of the music’s mystery, the feeling that there is something about the experience of the sounds that reaches beyond the notes into a realm of imagination that lingers tantalizingly out of reach, something which the best Debussy performers seem to be able to suggest. As good as the performance was, it made one wish that it were even better.
My reaction to the Stravinsky was similar. Dudamel led the ballet score (not the suite) from memory, about 45 minutes worth of music. Not all of this music commands equal attention, and Stravinsky’s later dismissive comments might have applied to many of the moments left out of the excerpts he later compiled but included here. On the other hand, there were beauties in many of the less familiar moments, some of which provided opportunities for superb wind solos. The level of sparkling solo playing by each member of the wind and brass sections was one reason why I would like to hear much more from this orchestra. The loud and fast moments, especially the climactic “Infernal Dance” of the evil wizard Kastchei, were performed with adrenalin-inducing intensity. At moments such as these, I could not help but compare Dudamel to the young Bernstein, who excelled in whipping up such frenzies. Interestingly, I think Dudamel emerges as the more self-effacing, musically more disciplined conductor. He indulges in no unnecessarily theatrical gestures; on the podium, his motions are efficient and all about communicating with his players, who respond to his every motion. He respects them enough not to exaggerate, and they, apparently adoring him, are tuned in and ready to deliver. His general restraint works especially well for the places in the music where he decides to become expansive; at such moments, his players outdo themselves to shape the music to his wishes. Apart from such visceral moments, many sections of the Stravinsky score seemed muted, their lyricism almost generic. Clearly Dudamel loves this music, but I was not left with a clear answer as to why. The performance was very good, but not uniquely memorable.
This brings us to the “new” music, the area of repertory that can powerfully distinguish an orchestra. Certainly the L. A. Philharmonic under Salonen achieved a unique place among American orchestras in this way, with a strong connection to European trends, and Alan Gilbert’s N. Y. Philharmonic is in the process of following suit, with a bit more emphasis on new American scores. (Boston under Levine was defining its repertory interests in terms of an older generation of American modernists: Carter, Babbitt, and Wuorinen; but at the moment they lack a music director as well as a distinctive artistic profile.)
The association of Dudamel and the orchestra with John Adams(who occupies the “creative chair” of the orchestra), particularly to his most significant work of the past ten years the oratorio (or passion?) The Gospel of the Other Mary, stakes a claim, as does the work itself. The performance (which includes a strong dose of theatricality courtesy of its librettist/stage-director Peter Sellars) ambitiously seeks to encompass the consciousness and conscience of our society and our times, and to place them in the context of a common moral framework assembled from the Gospels, Hildegard von Bingen, and a series of contemporary texts such as Dorothy Day (of the Catholic Worker), Cesar Chavez, Louise Erdrich, Rosario Castellanos, Ruben Dario, and (most memorably) Primo Levi. The work is a kind of passion setting; the title parallels that of the passions of Bach, and the crucifixion moment is placed at the center of the second (of two) acts; Adams leaves room for subsequent burial and resurrection, so the dramatic emphasis is shifted. Each phase of the narrative occurs in two parallel time-frames. That of the Biblical narrative forms a partially sublimated background to more recent writings which refer to events which define our present condition: homeless shelters, oppressed minorities, striking farm workers, the Holocaust, and other instances of “official” indifference, persecution, or inhumanity. The choice of texts and focus foregrounds women, workers, minorities, all who are marginalized.
The “production,” including staging, costumes, lighting, gestures, dancing, and dramatic interactions seemed integral to the conception, although it has been performed without those elements. The individual characters and their choreographic Doppelgänger appear on raised platforms in front of the orchestra, and the members of the very active forty-eight member chorus dressed in street-clothes are ranged one-deep on an elevated platform behind it; they participate with movement and dramatic gestures throughout. The narrator is a three-voiced character (inspired, perhaps, by the Lutheran convention of depicting Jesus as a two-voiced one in earlier seventeenth century musical dramatizations). All the performers were superb, but the obvious wish to project the drama as forcefully as possible was weakened by the fact that all but one of the characters sang in basically the vocal same register, mezzo-soprano. For all the skill Adams exercised in distinguishing the vocal idioms for them, the two women and three counter-tenors occupied the same registral territory for the majority of the solos. This left the rest of musical space clear for the one singer, Lazarus, whose music as a result stood out in sharp relief. This might seem a minor point, but it worked together with the explicitly presented drama of Lazarus’s resurrection to render that moment the de facto climax of the whole work. The powerful singing of tenor Russell Thomas and the energized vocal line Adams gave to his character formed the outstanding musical moment, and reverberated at the end of the act when Mary finds Jesus standing next to her by the empty sepulcher. Lazarus’s gratitude is amplified by Adams’ setting of “Passover” by Primo Levi. The possibility for resurrection and transcendence seems a clear ideological touchstone for the piece, and yet it is one that feels detached from the vivid portrayals of misery and struggle that formed most of the rest of the drama. Lacking communal ritual and liturgical function, a gap between the ongoing struggle for social justice and the miracle of salvation seemed unbridged. Sellars staging involved physical gestures that expressed the tensions of struggle, but also a kind of easily won resolution in the form of the characters embracing each other periodically. The effect struck me as almost maudlin.
Adams’ music itself was quite splendid. His inventiveness and ability to find instrumental energies and colors to match dramatic moods seems inexhaustible. Metallic sounds lend a special character to the score: the cimbalom, a Hungarian hammer dulcimer, is used along with a variety of types of kettle gongs to give exotic color and biting articulation to the propulsive rhythms. This is particularly effective at the conclusion of Lazarus’s song. Earlier in that same number, Adams deploys what sound like overlapping glissandi on saxophone and English horn. It is as if a whole world of sound has been released from the grave.
The arrest of Jesus is portrayed as a police raid, evoked in the score by Stravinskian rhythmic violence. The Golgotha scene, the darkest moment in the score, is characterized by choral mutterings, yellings, and assorted additional vocal sounds; but these are more familiar from earlier twentieth-century choral works such as Orff’s Catulli Carmina.
On one hearing it is hard to catch (on the fly, as it were) the full catalogue of timbral and structural felicities of the score; and it is certainly worth repeated hearings (although I would opt, second time out, for the unstaged version). Dudamel and his forces were fully immersed in and committed to the drama, and seemed to revel in the participatory nature of the experience. He led them with quiet efficiency, relying particularly on a brilliant expanded percussion section. It may be that in the future, this section will define the special character of this orchestra, as the brasses have done in Chicago and the strings in Philadelphia.
The other, much more modest contemporary offering, forms a footnote to this review, perhaps a significant one. Claude Vivier, who was lost to us in 1983 at the age of thirty-five owing to tragic circumstances, was one of the most inventive and original of the post-Boulez Francophone composers. (He was born in Montreal.) His sixteen-minute piece for small string orchestra Zipangu of 1980 displays his resourcefulness in re-thinking the sound of orchestral strings. He divides his players into a concertino (small solo group) of six violins to the conductor’s left, and a ripieno (larger massed group) to his right. Apart from the usual altered sonorities of harmonics and on-the-bridge bowing, Vivier used an intonation system based on the higher partials of the natural harmonic series. This required playing with “straight tone” (that is, without the sweetening of vibrato) and making micro-tonal adjustments to the tuning of pitches so that they would align as harmonics with those sounding below, particularly in connection with drones set up by the single double-bass. In addition, he asks on certain notes for the players to “crunch” their notes, that is, apply “too much” bow pressure to get a noisy, scratchy sound in vivid contrast to the natural overtone blends elsewhere. The result, inspired by the music of east Asia (the title refers to an ancient name for Japan), achieves a unique coloration, an artistic effect situated in an imaginary geographical space far from Europe. The result was startling, provocative, and refreshing.
It was this final piece that may show the L. A. Philharmonic and its conductor the way forward. Debussy and Stravinsky have been canonized by our orchestral culture, and John Adams has also been embraced, despite his interest in expanding our sense of time and orchestral color. But Vivier and so many others today are reshaping our conception of what an orchestra is and what its cultural references might be. I can think of no one better qualified than the combination of Dudamel and his orchestra to keep moving in that direction. It is a movement that must enlist the participation and enthusiasm of the audience to succeed. Here’s to that success!
- The L. A. Phil. Website clearly gets this. About their tour of which these were the concluding concerts, it states “Led by our Music Director, we took a typically audacious set of programs on the road. We played programs that said, ‘This is who we are and this is what we think is important.’” ↩
- The program book claims: “The Los Angeles Philharmonic is reinventing the concept of a 21st-century orchestra under the vibrant leadership of Gustavo Dudamel.” ↩