New CD Captures Sonorous Power Of Adams’ ‘Other Mary’

Gustavo Dudamel conducting the world premiere of John Adams's 'The Gospel According to the Other Mary.'  (Photo by Craig T. Mathew:Mathew Imaging)
Gustavo Dudamel conducted the world premiere of John Adams’s ‘The Gospel According to the Other Mary’ in 2012.
(Los Angeles Philharmonic photo by Craig T. Mathew)

John Adams: The Gospel According to the Other Mary: Kelley O’Connor and Tamara Mumford, mezzo-sopranos; Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, and Nathan Medley, counter-tenors, Russell Thomas, tenor, Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Master Chorale, Gustavo Dudamel, conductor. Libretto by Peter Sellars.  Deutsche Grammophon 0289 479 2243 8 (2 CDs) ©2014.

By Richard S. Ginell

DIGITAL REVIEW – John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary has received an enviably high-powered sendoff: a world premiere of a preliminary version with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Master Chorale at Walt Disney Concert Hall in May-June 2012; more performances in March 2013 of a staged version that the LA Phil took on tour to New York, London, Paris, and Lucerne; and now a recording on Deutsche Grammophon.

Adams Gospel 300Was all of this fuss, bother, and expense worth the trouble? Indeed it was, for this scintillating, even surreal oratorio has worn well over repeated hearings, and on discs it comes off as both a sonic spectacular and a meditation with a surprising intimacy that draws you in.

The storyline is a retelling of the Passion fused with librettist Peter Sellars’ PC contemporary parallels as cobbled together from several sources.  A troubled Mary Magdalene and her more practical sister Martha run a House of Hospitality for destitute women in California’s Central Valley (the late labor leader César Chávez even gets a name check), and their mission of helping the poor becomes intertwined with the last days of their house guest, Jesus. But you don’t have to buy into that premise – or even be a Christian – in order to get a deep charge out of Adams’ impassioned, sometimes violent response to the texts and his explorations of sonorities new even for him.

The version on these two discs, said to be the final one, is about 16 minutes shorter than the 149-minute behemoth heard at the world premiere. Adams’s revisions in Act I mainly consist of scattered nips and tucks in the orchestral passages and choruses, and some of the solo vocal lines have been simplified just a bit to avoid some awkward intervals. Act II appears to be uncut, and there is even some sparely applied added instrumentation in spots. Yet the trimmed work makes pretty much the same impact as it did uncut. It’s still not an easy work to perform, but Dudamel, mezzo-sopranos Kelley O’Connor (Mary) and Tamara Mumford (Martha) and tenor Russell Thomas (Lazarus) make light of its difficulties with skill and fervor.

Adams wrote 'Gospel' with librettist Peter Sellars. (Deborah O'Grady)
Adams wrote ‘Gospel’ with librettist Peter Sellars. (Deborah O’Grady)

If you have wide-range playback equipment, the bass drum rolls and tam-tam strokes and rubbings on this recording will vibrate your walls. Most of all, the superb engineering allows us to explore at our leisure the wealth of exotic instrumental and choral detail that Adams has put in his score – like the jangling of the cimbalom, the warehouse of percussion items, the unusually dark shadings of the three counter-tenors, and the grumbling and shouting of the Master Chorale in the mob scenes.

I think DG made the right call by releasing The Gospel in audio-only form so listeners at home can concentrate on what Adams wrote without the distraction of visuals. It may be an old-fashioned way of experiencing new music in video-centric 2014, but this intricate score deserves our full attention.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide.