Vespers Bear Message Of Sorrow, Hope For ‘Blessed Earth’ In Peril

John Luther Adams onstage at Carnegie Hall after the New York premiere of his ‘Vespers of the Blessed Earth’ by the Philadelphia Orchestra and The Crossing. (Photos by Chris Lee)

NEW YORK — In late March, the front page of The New York Times announced the latest warning from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change under the headline “Earth Is Nearing The Tipping Point For A Hot Future.” It served as a grim contextual prelude to Vespers of the Blessed Earth, the latest work by John Luther Adams, which the Philadelphia Orchestra performed on its Carnegie Hall program March 31, a night after presenting the world premiere at its home base.

Increasingly, composers are addressing topics related to climate change; indeed, the music industry as a whole has begun to reflect on ways to alleviate its environmental impact. Adams, 70, got there long ago. Commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra for that ensemble and the chamber choir The Crossing, Vespers adds to a lifetime’s body of works in which the composer engages with humanity’s perception of the natural world. Here, he laments the destruction of the planet’s rich diversity in an extended sequence of grief-filled meditations.

Adams in fact started out as an environmental activist in the 1970s before turning his focus full-time to performance (as a percussionist) and composition. Born in Mississippi and educated at CalArts, he discovered a deep sense of connection to Alaska while taking part in a conservation project. Adams subsequently made his home in the great northern spaces of Alaska for close to four decades, honing a post-minimalist language that evokes a mindful awareness of place — “probably the principal metaphor for my life’s work,” as he once put it.

Members of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s wind and brass sections were situated in the second tier at Carnegie Hall for the New York premiere of John Luther Adams’ ‘Vespers of the Blessed Earth.’

Long operating outside the classical mainstream in the manner of American mavericks like John Cage and Morton Feldman, Adams won a close following beyond the usual concert hall circuit before more widespread recognition arrived in 2014. That was the year in which he received the Pulitzer Prize in Music for Become Ocean, his first fully symphonic composition, which originated as a commission from the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot, who premiered it in 2013 and brought it to Carnegie Hall the following year on a tour. The composer himself had never previously attended a performance at the storied venue.

Adams was again at Carnegie Hall for this concert, having since become a more familiar presence to New York audiences through such events as a three-part series at the Miller Theatre, a “soundwalk” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the premiere of Sila: The Breath of the World, a site-specific outdoor work written for Lincoln Center. But Adams for the most part resisted discussing these compositions as simple political messages, discouraging a correspondingly reductive tendency to approach them naturalistically as programmatic narratives.

Abstract formal processes are inextricable from the immersive effect created by the 42-minute Become Ocean, for example. Visual artists like Agnes Martin have long inspired Adams with their combination of “rigorous formalism and the unabashedly sensual,” he has said, adding, “I want my music to be intellectually, mathematically airtight and beautifully constructed, but then why can’t it be sensual and ravishingly beautiful at the same time?”

Vespers for the Blessed Earth shifts course dramatically. While Adams continues to deploy long-range patterns that unfold in complex proportional relations, his attitude has become much more personal and, dare I say, direct and message-driven. A pantheistically flavored spirituality has long been part of his aesthetic worldview. But here, with obvious allusions to Monteverdi and a long tradition of sacred music, the stance of prayer and ritual comes closer than ever before to a religious sense of purpose — even obligation. As the composer explains in a program note, “I wanted to give full voice to the grief that so many of us feel today, to see a measure of consolation and solace, and some hope of renewal in the enduring beauty of the Earth.”

Soprano Meigui Zhang sang the wordless vocal line in John Luther Adams’ ‘Vespers of the Blessed Earth’ with the Philadelphia Orchestra led by Donald Nally.

The problem is that Vespers ends up preaching solemnly to the choir, so to speak. Sustaining a melancholy note throughout that is at times deeply touching, it never quite reaches beyond such sorrowing — and good intentions — to convey the contemporary sense of the sublime that makes Become Ocean and related works such extraordinary experiences. Adams seems to rely on tropes that become too predictable — elegiacally descending lines that unfurl with the gravity of a Renaissance lamento, and even tolling bell sounds to a litany of names familiar from ceremonial remembrances.

Cast in five movements for varying formations of the orchestral apparatus, the choir, and soprano Meigui Zhang, Vespers journeys from a survey of “two-billion years of deep time” (with choral recitations of rock layers comprising the Grand Canyon) through the devastations being wrought in the Anthropocene to end with the ghostly evocation of an extinct Hawaiian bird.

Adams has worked closely with The Crossing for several years, and their synergy was evident in the spellbinding clarity and warmth of the singing. Yet this performance (like the previous evening’s world premiere in Philadelphia) had to make a last-minute adjustment when Yannick Nézet-Séguin withdrew as a result of illness. Replacing him was The Crossing’s conductor, Donald Nally, who showed a firm command of the score and Adamsian proportions, allowing these to play out with reverent, patient attention.

Central to Nally’s task was the delicate balancing of the divided choral groups and ensembles of strings with percussion distributed across the stage (supplemented by piano and harp), while woodwinds and brass were positioned higher up on balconies. They joined together only in the fourth movement (“Litanies of the Sixth Extinction”) — which Adams calls “the heart of my vespers” — to intone the scientific nomenclature for 193 life forms in danger of extinction, ending, chillingly, with the low male voices chanting the species “Homo sapiens.” Yet the spatial distribution didn’t add much to the tonal imprint and failed to deliver the promised sensation of being within the musical texture. Moreover, despite the changing combination or isolation of forces, an overall sense of sameness of mood began to settle in, counteracting Vespers’ intended paean to diversity.

Still, a movement for a cappella chorus (“A Weeping of Doves”) and solo soprano proved especially affecting and was followed by the intriguingly atmospheric, strings-centered “Night-Shining Clouds.” Evoking nocturnal cloud formations that betray evidence of human pollution, Adams let the string textures hover hallucinogenically, like a color field painting: Shimmering harmonics reminiscent of the Lohengrin Prelude gave way to stabbing, violent clusters in the lower depths.

Marin Alsop led ‘a brilliantly illuminated account’ of Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ on the concert’s second half.

Another arresting idea was the wordless vocal line spun with mournful, elastic beauty by Meigui Zhang in the final aria, a musical mirror and memorial to what has been lost now for decades, based on a recording from 1987 of the mating call of the Kaua’i ʻŌʻō  bird — to which no response was forthcoming. The ending as a dying, unanswered fall proved especially haunting.

It also established a powerful contrast that shed light on The Rite of Spring, which occupied the second half of the program. Marin Alsop took over at the podium to lead a brilliantly illuminated account of Stravinsky’s landmark ballet score. Even in the absence of choreography, Alsop’s command of dramatic pace and emphasis on sharply defined accentuation conjured a vivid sense of narrative, turbulent and even brutal yet awe-inspiring. Curiously, with the vast orchestra now all gathered on one stage, the sensation of changing planes of sonority was actually more noticeable.

Alsop coaxed the score’s primal melodies so that they seemed to emerge with bright transparency from thickets of opaque sonorities. She exaggerated moments of ritardando to set off the next onslaught of energy, encouraging especially aggressive attacks from the percussion and brass but pulling back to give space to the tense mystery of the preparations for the sacrifice. Reveling in ferocity, this was a Rite that at the same time celebrated the enduring life force.