John Adams’s El Niño, an oratorio about Mary, the mother of Jesus, doesn’t require a religious audience to appreciate its full weight, possibly because its composer isn’t particularly religious himself. The music is about a particular woman and child of great significance, but similar moments of beauty, fear and love can be found in the mundane. Though Adams describes himself as secular, he is responsible for creating some of the greatest works of religious music of the 21st century. The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s performances of El Niño on December 16 and 18 (part of a year-long celebration of Adams’s 70th birthday) proved the piece has lost none of its power since its 2000 premiere.
During the creation of El Niño, Adams assembled the text from biblical passages, as well as selections from the Apocrypha, early Christian writings not considered part of the biblical canon. Adams’s longtime-collaborator Peter Sellars encouraged him to consider Latin American poetry as well. Adams uses the ancient texts and poetry to tell the oratorio’s story from the perspective of Mary, particularly through the writing of Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos, which are integral to the work’s structure and are responsible for some of its most poignant moments.
Sublime joy is counterbalanced with horrendous darkness in El Niño. Castellanos’ poem, ”Memorial de Tlatelolco,” about the 1968 murder of hundreds of student protesters in Mexico City by military forces, is rendered analogous to the widespread infanticide committed by King Herod in an attempt to kill the newborn King of the Jews. Modern references to television and radio fail to mute the sorrow of mass murder.
The first movement opens with ominous pulsing notes in the woodwinds and low brass reminiscent of Adams’s early minimalist style.Conductor Grant Gershon, director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, took the music slightly slower than Kent Nagano’s recorded version, robbing the opening of some of its energy. But the choice turned out to be a calculated masterstroke: the slower tempo allowed the violins to more easily rise above the chaos as the music became brighter and melodic lines emerged. Gershon and the chorus were in perfect sync throughout the performance. The singers enter the opening movement with stuttering, deconstructed phrases that gradually overlap and transform into flowing lyrical lines. Despite the complexity of Adams’s writing for voice, the singers’ crisp attacks and articulations made it easy to understand the words. Walt Disney Concert Hall’s superior acoustics ideally balanced the chorus, soloists and orchestra.
In addition to the opening pulsing notes, El Niño features chugging strings that bring to mind one of Adams’s earliest successes, Shaker Loops, in which the rapidly oscillating string figures evoke ecstatic Shakers dancing to religious music. The three countertenors (men singing in a woman’s range) mimic the effect Adams used in Nixon in China to represent faceless Communist Party bureaucrats. The “Magnificat” movement belongs among the most beautiful arias of Adams’s best operas, the aforementioned Nixon and The Death of Klinghoffer. Thankfully, the movement is in English; it was possible to fully experience soprano Julia Bullock’s performance without being distracted by projected supertitles. Bullock was a student of the great soprano Dawn Upshaw, who sang the same part at El Niño’s premiere and on the recording. Bullock’s performance gave the “Memorial de Tlatelolco” section an almost unbearable level of sadness and heartbreak.
Hearing El Niño in 2017 and knowing the music that Adams would compose subsequent to it adds a bittersweet element — it’s both a summation of Adams’s first mature style and a glorious farewell to that earlier music. The works that followed El Niño, particularly his opera, Doctor Atomic, adopt a more complicated harmonic language. Gone are many of the moments of joy previously found in his pieces, replaced by jagged chords and roiling emotions. Adams still composes beautiful music, but it’s rarely as purely pleasurable that leading up to El Niño, and the darkness sometimes threatens to overwhelm everything.
For the Friday night performance, a film by Peter Sellars, best known as a theater and opera director, was projected above the orchestra. It opens with beautiful abstract shots of out-of-focus streetlights. Hints of a story begin to emerge as men and women populate the film. The women represent Jesus’s mother, Mary, at various stages in her pregnancy, while the men are both God and Mary’s husband, Joseph. Sellars sets some of the scenes in a desert, like the original biblical settings, but most of the film takes place in urban streets and in nondescript apartments. Combined with the contemporary texts, the film connects the experiences of Mary to the lives and fears of all women.
The film’s disjointed, often abstract editing and the modern setting bring to mind another filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard (not coincidentally perhaps, since Sellars plays the lead in Godard’s criminally underseen masterpiece, King Lear). Godard’s Hail Mary, which was met with protests from the Catholic Church at its premiere, also adapted the story of the Virgin Mary to a modern setting. The most controversial aspect of the film is Godard’s depiction of the Annunciation, when Mary is impregnated by an unseen God. With our modern understanding of sexual agency, the scene represents a rape, and Godard’s Mary has a pregnancy filled with physical and mental pain. Sellars’ women share that same pain and doubt. Like Godard’s Mary, who is rocked by painful spasms as she is overtaken, Sellars’ Mary is struck down in pain when her child is conceived. Visuals for musical performances are often treated as an afterthought, merely something to set the mood, but Sellars’ film helps to expand Adams’s emotional palette.
El Niño is most clearly modeled after Handel’s Messiah, a piece whose familiarity and ubiquity can sometimes be a slog for the nonbelievers. But the emotions and experiences in El Niño are universal enough, and the music is fresh enough, to be exhilarating still. It is a work that can resonate equally with those of great faith and those with none at all.
In fact, seeing El Niño at the end of 2016 gives it new resonances that wouldn’t have been possible at its 2000 premiere. The biblical stories of Mary and Jesus are a portrait of minorities oppressed by a totalitarian state and prejudiced policies. By using 20th century Latina poetry, Adams updates the story to include the experiences of a newer generation of oppressed people. Donald Trump seems like a fitting King Herod.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic has had a long and fruitful relationship with Adams, and their performances of El Niño made one thing clear: it represents the pinnacle of John Adams’s music. He has written many great works before this one, and many since it, but few are as supremely beautiful, and none contain as much raw emotional power.