Simon Rattle conducts “The Gospel According to the Other Mary”

28 Jan 2017

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

  • John Adams
    The Gospel According to the Other Mary, A Passion Oratorio based on a Libretto compiled by Peter Sellars (154 min.)

    Kelley O’Connor Mezzo-Soprano (Mary), Tamara Mumford Mezzo-Soprano (Martha), Daniel Bubeck Countertenor, Brian Cummings Countertenor, Nathan Medley Countertenor, Peter Hoare Tenor (Lazarus), Rundfunkchor Berlin, Daniel Reuss Chorus Master

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    John Adams in conversation with Noah Bendix-Balgley (17 min.)

It was a novelty in the history of the Berliner Philharmoniker when the orchestra invited a director to a residency for the 2015/16 season, namely Peter Sellars. This was preceded by many months of intensive collaboration for the scenic “ritualisations” of Bach’s St Matthew Passion (2010) and St John Passion (2014), developed by Sellars for concerts of the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle and acclaimed by press and public alike. During his residency Sellars was responsible, inter alia, for a no less intense semi-staged production of Claude Debussy’s only opera Pelléas et Mélisande in December 2015, wonderfully cast with Christian Gerhaher and Magdalena Kožená in the main roles. By then at the latest it was clear that the unprecedented artistic liaison between Sir Simon, Peter Sellars and the Berlin Philharmonic was ensured a place in the orchestra’s history. But the Berlin Philharmonic and their chief conductor also explored new paths in the 2016/17 season; in the Rattle era, they bestowed the honour of a residency on a composer for the first time: John Adams, one of the most influential and at the same time most popular US composers of the post-war period.

In three Berliner Philharmoniker concerts, the past Artist in Residence hands over the baton to the current one as they co-create a joint work: The Gospel According to the Other Mary. The inspiration for this oratorio, which premiered in Los Angeles in 2012, is an apocryphal scripture from the second century A. D., ostensibly written by Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the resurrection of Jesus. Nonetheless, this collaboration between Peter Sellars and John Adams does not aim to rewrite the Bible. The libretto, conceived by Sellars as a text collage, refers back both to passages from the Old and New Testaments and to writings by mystic women from the Middle Ages, feminists and political activists of the 20th century and literary accounts from Holocaust survivors.

Adams handles this approach to the Passion of Christ and its significance for our times, which is both non-denominational and timeless, with a music in which, among other things, three countertenors adopt the role of the Evangelist as we know it from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Passions. And so the circle is complete, taking us from Peter Sellars’s staging debut with the Berlin Philharmonic to the compositional language of John Adams, who translates musical traditions into our time.

The Eternal Present

The Gospel According to the Other Maryby John Adams

The premiere of El Niño in Paris in 2000 signaled a landmark in John Adams’s artistic evolution. That Nativity oratorio conveyed a message of rebirth and hope attuned to what the composer sensed as the mood of the new millennium. Yet the very simplicity of the story of birth and renewal allowed Adams to evoke unsuspected undercurrents of darkness beneath its reassuring light. Already in that score, juxtaposed against musical images of joy and the miraculous, one could hear a threatening note of violence, especially in the work’s climactic episode of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.

This strategy of weaving together multiple, at times contradictory layers of emotional resonance is even more central to Adams’s The Gospel According to the Other Mary, first performed in Los Angeles in 2012. It is a key to his treatment of that most archetypal story of Western music and art: the Passion of Jesus. Adams and his longtime collaborator Peter Sellars had contemplated a companion piece to El Niño for several years. Their goal, explains Sellars, was to set the Passion story “in the eternal present, in the tradition of sacred art.” Violence and suffering are of course important components of the story, and by drawing on his entire repertoire of experience as a dramatic composer Adams depicts these with searing humanity.

But his unflinching portrayal of the human condition is only part of The Other Mary’s vast spectrum. Operating on two simultaneous planes—the biblical and the contemporary—his score goes to the heart of its often disturbing subject matter with a keen psychological intuition, particularly in the portrait of the work’s title character.

This is a Passion not only of Jesus, but of a family who loved and were loved by him: Mary Magdalene, her sister Martha, and their brother Lazarus. Its creators reject the conventional “reformed prostitute” version of Mary Magdalene, presenting instead a woman whose turbulent inner life and hard past go hand in hand with her deep powers of intuition and volatile sensuality. Her “otherness” is revealed in her troubled sense of alienation in the world: her wild mood swings, her seizures of bitter anger and her moments of tender compassion. Most of all, it is her “otherness” that fuels her hunger for self-knowledge, that “spiritual food” she gains from sitting at the feet of Jesus.

Her sister Martha is the opposite of the restless, questing Mary. Emotionally stable, dependable, she is so reliable that she becomes literally “distracted with much serving” to the point of complaining to Jesus. It is Martha who shoulders the burdens of everyday life. But her grief when her brother dies and later when Jesus is executed is no less than that felt by Mary.

Perhaps the most provocative aspect of The Gospel According to the Other Mary is its narrative “simultaneity,” its way of fusing the “mythic past” of the Gospels with vivid images from modern life. This is a Passion story that begins with women who have been jailed for protesting on behalf of the poor. Martha not only feeds Jesus but she also helps run a house for unemployed women. In Act II the arrest and brutal treatment of Jesus stands side by side with a depiction of the arrest and abuse by the police of a group of striking women.

If the precedent of J.S. Bach in his own epochal Passions immediately springs to mind, it is important to note that Sellars has developed an unconventional understanding of the significance of those works through years of profound engagement in his various stagings of Bach’s sacred music. Far from merely reinforcing Christian piety, Sellars argues that the Bach Passions “show people trying to remember what happened to them as a community after they’ve experienced devastation.” His musical settings of the poetry that is interpolated into the biblical account are “so shockingly visceral that Bach radicalizes and makes experiential the words you’ve heard thousands of times.”

The Other Mary pulsates with the energy of its sources, not only those from the Bible but from the polyphony of voices, most of them feminine, that make up the unique and unorthodox librettocrafted by Sellars. Texts drawn from the autobiography of Dorothy Day (1897-1980), the American social activist and leader of the Catholic Worker Movement, recount her revolutionary efforts to follow Jesus’ message of social justice. These frame the opening sections of both of The Other Mary’s two acts, which place Mary and Martha in the “eternal present” as they run a shelter for the downtrodden and later engage in Cesar Chavez’s farm workers’ protests. The explosive lyricism of African-American poet and essayist June Jordan (1936-2002) adds painful resonance to the women’s reflections during the scene of their brother Lazarus’ death.

A short poem of scorching intensity by the novelist and poet Louise Erdrich (b. 1954) articulates Mary’s complex love for Jesus. Another Erdrich poem, “Orozco’s Christ”, opens Act II in a chorus of blistering intensity as it depicts an aggressive, militant Jesus far different from the quietly compassionate one of other scenes. Texts by Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos (1925-1974) and the 12th-century mystic and abbess Hildegard of Bingen further attest to feminine spirituality at moments in the narrative. Other texts include a poem by the early modernist Rubén Darío (1867-1916) and “Passover” by Italian writer Primo Levi (1919-1987), whose words of forgiveness, celebration, and hope Adams gives to the grateful Lazarus in the closing moments of Act I.

In its narrative structure, The Other Mary swerves away from the conventional Passion story in several ways. One is in its expansion of the actual biblical narrative. The first act plunges us immediately into the scene of Mary and Martha’s activist work in Bethany, where Jesus joins them. Mary experiences a more tormented inner life and is sensitive to the world’s disorder, while Martha focuses her vision on a practical call to action. Serving as the act’s fulcrum are the sickness, death, and resurrection of their brother Lazarus, which Sellars envisions as a “rehearsal” staged by Jesus in anticipation of his own return from the dead. Jesus’ arrest is deferred to the beginning of the second act. The scene of the Crucifixion at the act’s center is portrayed in the work’s most-extended section. And while Passion settings typically end with the burial of Jesus, The Other Mary includes the resurrection in its final scene.

In contrast to Bach’s use of meditative chorales and arias as moments of repose to reflect on the present-day meaning of the Passion, the contemporary dimension in which The Other Mary takes place is dramatized equally alongside the biblical events. It enacts aspects of the Passion and its violence as they continue to recur, in terms that are familiar in our own society. During the process of composing the work, recalls Adams, current events seemed to reinforce the sense of parallels all too clearly—above all as this has become manifested in an attitude of “malice towards the weak and poor” and in the resurgence of violence against women across the globe.

Another unique dramatic quality of the work is its indirect representation of Jesus, who never actually appears as a separate “character.” His words are sung variously by a trio of countertenors and the chorus and are also distributed among Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. The Other Mary evades preconceived classifications of genre. The orchestra itself becomes a character, or perhaps an omniscient narrator—particularly in the passages depicting Lazarus’ death and resurrection, the terror and suffering of the Golgotha scene, and the “ravenous trill” of reawakened spring that provides a radiant transition into the concluding scene. As Mary perceives the gardener’s identity in a flash of recognition, Adams’ music makes us, too, understand her spiritual transformation.

Thomas May

Daniel Bubeck, a native of Wilmington, Delaware, studied at the University of Indiana, the Peabody Conservatory, and the University of Delaware, completing his education with courses at the Britten-Pears School in Aldeburgh, the Salzburg Mozarteum, and Oberlin Conservatory’s Baroque Performance Institute. He made his professional debut in 2000 in the world premiere of John Adams’s El Niño in Paris (production: Peter Sellars; conductor: Kent Nagano); since then he has appeared in this work in twenty different productions worldwide. At the centre of Bubeck’s repertoire are the operas of Georg Friedrich Handel, which he has performed for such institutions as New York City Opera and the Florida Bach Festival. Bubeck was a winner in the Liederkranz Vocal Competition and a recipient of a Sullivan Career Grant. In 2012, he sang in the premiere of Adamsʼs Gospel According to the Other Mary with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel. Daniel Bubeck has also performed works by Philip Glass, Hans Werner Henze, David Lang, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon with such ensembles as the Boston, Atlanta and San Francisco Symphonies, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, the London Philharmonic, the BBC Symphony and the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra. This is his first appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Brian Cummings studied Early Music at Indiana University, working with Paul Elliott, Paul Hillier and Nigel North and currently continues his education with the French Baroque specialist Guillemette Laurens in Paris. He also sang in the premiere of John Adams’s The Gospel According to the Other Mary in 2012. Since his professional debut in the premiere of John Adams’s El Niño, he has appeared in performances of this piece throughout the world, including at Carnegie Hall, with English National Opera, the London Philharmonic, Moscow Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, the Tokyo Symphony, and most recently at the Spoleto Festival USA. He has worked under such conductors as Esa-Pekka Salonen, Vladimir Jurowski, Robert Spano, David Robertson, John Adams and Tõnu Kaljuste, In 2010 he appeared in the title role of Handel’s Giulio Cesare with Opera Fuoco under David Stern. Cummings collaborates regularly with director Timothy Nelson, having sung the roles of David in Charpentier’s David et Jonathas, Hamor in Handel’s Jephtha, and Iarbo/Corebo in Cavalli’s Didone. He has also appeared as a soloist at the Washington and Bloomington early music festivals and has given concerts with ensembles such as Theatre of Voices, Les Arts Florissants, Ensemble Entheos and Les Muses Galantes; Brian Cummings now makes his debut in Berliner Philharmoniker concerts.

Peter Hoare was born in Bradford and initially trained as a percussionist, before beginning his singing career. The tenor made his debut at Welsh National Opera where his many roles have included Herod (Salome), Bacchus (Ariadne auf Naxos), Captain (Wozzeck), Alwa (Lulu) and Mal in the world premiere of James MacMillan’s The Sacrifice. His extensive repertoire ranges from Mozart’s Zauberflöte to B. A. Zimmerman’s Die Soldaten, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicoleand Alexander Raskatov’s The Dog’s Heart. He is a regular guest at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, and English National Opera in London as well as singing at the Metropolitan Opera New York, Berlin State Opera or the festivals in Salzburg and Glyndebourne. In concert Peter Hoare has appeared with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, the Philharmonia Orchestra London, and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, working with conductors such as Mark Elder, Daniel Harding, Sir Charles Mackerras or Esa-Pekka Salonen. He first performed with the Berliner Philharmoniker in January 2003 in Hector Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. In September 2003 he took part in the concert performances of Mozart’s opera Idomeneo in Berlin, Lucerne and Salzburg – equally under Sir Simon.

Nathan Medley received degrees in voice and historically informed performance practice from Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio and has emerged as one of the leading younger-generation countertenors. He has sung at some of the major stages of the world, including the English National Opera and Barbican Centre in London, La Salle Pleyel in Paris, Palais de Musique, Strasbourg, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, the Lucerne Festival, Avery Fisher Hall in New York, and Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Recent performances have brought him to the Boston Early Music Festival (as Ottone in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea), the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Chicago’s Ravinia Festival. Nathan Medley is a member of Echoing Air, an American ensemble devoted to early and contemporary music. He made his professional debut in 2012 in John Adams’s The Gospel According to the Other Mary with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. In May 2016 he premiered John Harbinson’s TheCross of Snow for countertenor and viola da gamba consort in Chicago with Second City Musick. A sought-after voice instructor as well, Nathan Medley teaches at Marian University and the University of Indiana. This is the first time he appears with the Berliner Philharmonikern.

Tamara Mumford, a native of Sandy (Utah), studied at Utah State University and began her stage career as part of the Young Artist Development Program at the Metropolitan Opera, where she made her debut in 2006 and has since appeared in more than 140 performances (including productions of Anna Bolena, Rigoletto, Ariadne auf Naxos, Parsifal, Idomeneo, a complete Ring Cycle, DieZauberflöte, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Wozzeck and L’Amour de loin). Other engagements have taken Tamara Mumford to the international festivals in Caramoor (New York), Glyndebourne, the BBC Proms and to renowned opera houses around the world. Also an active concert performer and recitalist, Tamara Mumford appeared with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the world premiere and subsequent tours of John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary. In concert Mumford has also worked with conductors such as Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, James Levine, and Donald Runnicles. She also regularly performs chamber music and lieder, for example at the Marlboro Festival or at Carnegie‘s Zankel Hall.These concerts mark her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, a native of California who was educated at the Thornton School of Music and the University of California, has developed a reputation in particular as an interpreter of contemporary American music. She created the role of Federico Garcia Lorca in the world premiere of Osvaldo Golijov’s opera Ainadamar at the Tanglewood Festival and sings on the Grammy Award winning recording of the opera. She has also earned great acclaim for her performances of Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs and The World in Flower. O’Connor performs a concert repertoire that spans from Bach to Berio, including works by Handel, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Dvořák, Verdi, Ravel, Stravinsky and Bernstein, with such conductors as Gustavo Dudamel, Christoph Eschenbach, Daniel Harding, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Leonard Slatkin and Edo de Waart. The artist enjoys a particularly warm musical collaboration with Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra. She made her debut in Berliner Philharmoniker concerts in October 2008, performing Lieberson’s Neruda Songs under David Zinman. Her last appearance with the orchestra was in March 2015 in Debussy’s La Damoiselle élue and Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem, conducted by Donald Runnicles.

The Rundfunkchor Berlin (Berlin Radio Choir) is a regular guest at major festivals and the chosen partner of international orchestras and conductors such as Sir Simon Rattle, Christian Thielemann and Daniel Barenboim. In Berlin the choir has long-standing partnerships with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester and the Berliner Philharmoniker. The exceptional breadth of its repertoire, its stylistic versatility, delight in experimentation, stunning responsiveness and richly nuanced sound all contribute to making it one of the world’s outstanding choral ensembles. Its work is documented by many recordings and awards, including three Grammy Awards. With its experimental project series, in collaboration with artists from diverse disciplines, the Rundfunkchor Berlin is breaking down the classical concert format and adopting new modes of choral music for a new audience: e.g. the interactive scenic version of Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem staged by Jochen Sandig / Sasha Waltz & Guests attracted great attention. With annual activities such as the Sing-along Concert and the “Liederbörse” (Song Exchange) for children and young people or the education programme SING! the choir invites people of various walks of life to the world of singing. Academy and Schola support the next generation of professionals. Founded in 1925 the ensemble was shaped by conductors including Helmut Koch, Dietrich Knothe, Robin Gritton and Simon Halsey (2001-2015). As of the 2015/16 season Gijs Leenars took over as new principal conductor and artistic director. The Rundfunkchor last appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in January 2017 in Giuseppe Verdi’s Messa da Requiem conducted by Marek Janowski.

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