Adams’ Gospel, version 2.0 – and finally, a Dudamel/LA Phil CD

Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

    As I write this, Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic are leaving for Europe, bringing along an unusually massive calling card – John Adams’s The Gospel According to the Other Mary in its current, semi-staged form.

On one level, this proves that Dudamel is eager to have it both ways, comfortable with his celebrity status yet willing to take risks, refusing to play it safe with predictable popular repertoire (as in the example of the late Van Cliburn).  Also, Dudamel is sharing his exploits with the hometown audience before he exports his music abroad.  That’s important because some around here with long memories recall with lingering regret that some of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s most acclaimed projects with the Philharmonic in Europe in the `90s – the performances of Messiaen’s St. Francis of Assisi in Salzburg and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in Paris – were never seen nor heard in Los Angeles, nor recorded or even broadcast. For me, it seemed like an indication of condescension, if not outright disregard, for Angelenos who could not take in their orchestra’s biggest triumphs unless their bank accounts permitted European travel. So bravo to Gustavo for treating his local listeners like equal participants in his orchestra’s adventures.

Just prior to the tour, The Gospel was given a run of three performances at Disney Hall last week – and for me, this huge work made about the same impact the second time through, not particularly helped, nor hurt, by Peter Sellars’s bare-bones staging.  There has been some trimming, confirmed by a stopwatch – the first version heard last June clocked in at 149 minutes while the revised one was 135 minutes, with some verbally awkward passages noticeably eliminated – yet these tucks and trims have not altered the structural impression that I got the first time around.

Sellars had his singing actors perched on a pair of platforms, one of which doubles as a table, with non-singing dancers interacting with hand gestures and strokes that may have been based upon pre-Christian rituals.  The Los Angeles Master Chorale was lined up in street clothes in the rear of the stage making defiant calisthenics-like gestures in unison, a throwback to Sellars’s ridiculous chorus line in Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex a few seasons back. Adams’s expanded palette of orchestral effects – from the encyclopedic catalogue of tuned gongs and other percussion instruments (the score says that some are played by stroking them with a Superball) to the jangling timbre of a cimbalom – continues to give this score a different, vibrating texture and sheen from any of his preceding works.

The Sellars agenda of juxtaposing religious events from long ago with made-up contemporary parallels – including offstage cameos by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta – is getting more than a little tiresome by now, but as before, it can be safely overlooked by those who are fascinated with Adams’s exotic, forceful new musical directions.  Deutsche Grammophon will make it even easier to concentrate upon the music if they release it on CD instead of video. We’ll know in 2014 when the recording comes out.

And while we’re on the subject of Philharmonic recordings, you might recall a blog post a year ago in which I said that you could not buy a recording of Dudamel and the Phil on a CD; only downloads or DVDs. That statement, thank goodness, is no longer operative – to quote the late Nixon apologist Ron Ziegler – for Gustavo’s new L.A. recording of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is now available on a pair of DG CDs.

It’s striking how the LA Phil plays in a rougher, grainier, less-precise way under Gustavo in Feb. 2012 than they did with Esa-Pekka in Shostakovich 4 on CD, made only two months before.  Throughout, Dudamel gets the Phil to dig in with a lot of rhythmic thrust and his usual lunging at the phrase. Yet this performance doesn’t rise into the realm of extraordinary until the final minutes of the Rondo Burleske, where Gustavo is only too happy to underline each of Mahler’s three indications to go fast, faster and fastest, and the orchestra seems to explode with unleashed frenzy at the close. Also, the long, broad finale has two kinds of intensity – massive and searing at first, and impressively quiet at the close. This is not a Ninth of apocalyptic bitterness or deep poetry; rather it is an exuberant statement from an effusive young maestro fighting his way through what must have been total exhaustion near the end of his live Mahler cycle.  Presumably, true introspection will come later.