John Adams’s El Niño And Also It’s Raining Outside

I had this idea in my head that John Adams was a dud and that the whole world was crazy but I put it to bed last night at the Symphony gang’s performance of his setting of the nativity myth to music, El Niño.  The whole story is that it was good.  Really good.

I approached the show somewhat hesitantly for a number of reasons.  Having cut my teeth and bloodied my gums on too many Messiah concerts, I wondered if my shrieks of horror for a nine millionth go-around of the nativity myth in an oratorio format would be a discomfort to my fellow patrons.  Also, way back in 2010, a production of Nixon In China got me on an off-day and hasn’t sat well ever since.  There’s also the not unwelcome but not always welcome hypnotic vibe that I find attached to minimalist music.

By all accounts, at least from all the accountants in line for the bathroom at half-time,  the most devastating force on stage was the trifecta of countertenors whom were also part of the work’s premier in 2000.  If you’re interested in looking beyond the knee-jerk novelty of an ensemble of such an unusual voice type, you’ll find that the choice to include them amongst the production’s resources is a brilliant choice for a nativity oratorio.  What better way to paint the idea of a celestial voice than with a trio of men who are equipped with just that?

From a narrative standpoint, I really enjoyed how flexible the roles of the cast are under John’s meticulous dots.  For instance, the counter tenors morph readily between the roles of the Angel Gabriel, to some kind of celestial consciousness both inside and outside Mary (…the babe leaped in my womb), to the three kings who visit baby Jesus in the manger.  Other cast members provide narrative for themselves and each other in addition to their own dialogue.  It really helps the piece move forward.  John also has this Mahler-like tendency to break the orchestra up into smaller chamber groups in order to keep the whole 2 hours from sounding dull and grey.  The difference in his application is that his chamber groups are far more esoteric to ears of someone bred on the bounty of the the three ‘B’s;  I’m thinking of piccolo double bass duets, a mezzo solo accompanied by cellos and basses in harmonics with a solo violin arpeggiating ecstaticly underneath them, and our countertenor trio (Did I mention how amazing they were yet?) accompanied by a solo percussionist.

I’m noticing common colours and sound worlds in John’s music that seem to hint at the depth of the rabbit hole rather than hurling towards my forehead like the bottom of the barrel.  One of his most-used devices is the orgy of cross rhythms all vying for dominance.  Basically, the practice is that the ensemble agrees upon what the regular pulse is but they break apart into subgroups that play figuration that contradicts this.  The effect is of a writhing mass of music tendrils that has the flexibility to snarl or seduce, depending on the context.  One of John’s favourite uses of this effect is the incisive strings/brass/burly baritone fanfare.  If you were in attendance last night, Gregory Dahl’s ballistic take on the following piece should be a fond memory:

Shake The Heavens

Contrast that with this aria (Sung by Gerald Finley) from another of John’s operas, Doctor Atomic.

Batter My Heart

They’re both similar because they’re by the same guy but they’re also undeniably different.  To illustrate this point, I once had a piano teacher who said that the most interesting thing about Chopin was that you could pull any piece from his catalogue and instantly recognize it as Chopin while simultaneously distinguishing it from the other million piano pieces that are also Chopin.

Lastly, it’s worth mentioning that for a show that came a follicle’s breath within being rained out, Vancouver did a good job keeping it’s coughing fits to a minimum.  And a special note of thankfulness must be emitted in the direction of the mother who carried her screaming child out of the theatre during one of the duets in the first half.  Her shriek of, “But I wanna stay!” was, as I conferred to one of my neighbours,  incredibly apt.  Amen little sister.

Great concert. Where were you?