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.