El Niño blows into town

John Adams' setting of the nativity story brings a breath of fresh air to oratorio

Thursday May 29, 2003 12:04 am EDT

One of the great capacities of art is its ability to refresh itself, to retell old and universally meaningful stories in new ways, to new generations of people.

American composer John Adams' oratorio El Nino ("The Child"), the age-old story of the nativity of Jesus set to music, does just that. Drawing on an eclectic range of sources — Italian fresco paintings, Spanish poetry both ancient and modern, books from the Apocrypha, and biblical texts — El Nino is a multifaceted, multilingual production that offers a dramatically different and richly informed retelling of the traditional story of Christ's birth.

Appropriately, El Nino premiered at the edge of the new millenium, Dec. 15, 2000, at Paris' Chatelet Theater, the product of a commission initiated by the San Francisco Symphony. Now, ASO music director Robert Spano leads the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in the oratorio's Southeastern premiere, in a new semi-staged production, May 29-31 at Symphony Hall.

The original production, directed by Peter Sellars and conducted by Kent Nagano, was a diverse event which even included an imposing silent film that drew its images from the barrios of Southern California. The season-concluding Atlanta production, by comparison, is more modest in its non-musical trappings, but promises no less an intensive, compelling experience for performers and audience alike.

"This is the first time the piece is happening with a new cast and a new production, so that is inherently a new phase in the life of the piece," says Spano. "The previous production had a lot of technology involved, and this one does not. This one takes a more direct theatrical approach."

Spano engaged Edward Berkeley, director of undergraduate opera studies at The Juilliard School and director of the opera theater at Aspen Music Festival, for the task of staging El Nino. "Ed Berkeley is someone I have worked with a great deal and I admire," says Spano. "Basically, I love the way Ed takes a work and gets inside of it, and finds his way of approaching it very much from what's intrinsic in the work. Ed got the score, and let the piece speak to him. His approach to it is as a medieval mystery play, and it is so fresh and insightful."

Composer John Adams confirms the medieval origins of El Nino, speaking by telephone from his home in the San Francisco Bay Area. "The principal inspiration was the way that very beautiful myth was told in the humble and simple art of the middle ages, particularly by the painter Giotto," says Adams, referring to Giotto's 14th- century frescoes in the Cappella Scrovegni in Padua, Italy. "You've seen those pictures with the holy family all bunched in together, the animals right on top of them, and the local townspeople all there admiring the baby? It's all a very simple and very direct, almost childlike emotion, and that was the kind of expression that I wanted to use in that piece."

From this simple beginning, the project took on more and more depth. Director Sellars helped Adams put the libretto together, and it was his idea to incorporate the Hispanic texts, which include some that Adams chose because of their feminine perspective — particularly the poems of Rosario Castellanos, a 20th-century poet and Mexican ambassador to Israel, and Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a 17th-century nun he describes as "the Hildegard von Bingen of Mexico."

"They wrote about motherhood, about birth, about the spirituality of birth," Adams explains. "But also, in the case of both of them, there is a strong erotic aura to their writing. I certainly would never have taken on this nativity story if it had not been for the fact that I wanted to feature the women's point of view, which is obviously missing in the official biblical texts."

In Castellanos' poem for the Annunciation, though Mary sings of her feelings about carrying the child and the impending birth, she never mentions the word "Jesus" specifically, and it suddenly becomes a universal anthem for all women. When the long, passionate solo reaches its climactic conclusion, it meets a stunning, monumental response from the chorus, with words from the gospel of St. Luke: "For with God no thing shall be impossible."

Adams also turned to the Apocrypha, those books rejected for inclusion in the Bible by the early Christian church as being of "doubtful" authenticity, for non-traditional texts.

"The wonderful thing about stories in the Apocrypha is that, on the one hand, they're very childlike and almost like fairy tales, but they're also very psychologically subtle. There is one that I used to portray the moment when Joseph comes home and discovers Mary is pregnant, and he goes into a fit. The first thing he thinks is not about Mary, he doesn't say, 'Well, are you feeling OK? Is there anything I can do for you?' The first thing he says is, 'How could you do this to me?' and that's very modern."

"Every piece is different," Adams says of his work. "Each presents a different expressive world, and I hope that my musical expressive bandwidth is very wide so that I am able to find a unique way of saying everything I want to say .... The issue with any art is to have an expressive and formal language that is big enough and flexible enough to take on a variety of different subjects, so to speak. Certainly Stravinsky had that capacity, and Mahler, Beethoven, all the great composers."

Adams admits that the piece that followed El Nino, On the Transmigration of Souls, commissioned to mark the anniversary of Sept. 11, was a tough challenge. "How do you write about an event that's so traumatic and has happened so recently, and to write for the people who experienced it?" he asks. Not only did he find the wherewithal, he was awarded the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his efforts.

While writing it, Adams says American composer Charles Ives was very much in his thoughts. "I think of him as a guardian angel on that piece, because it was very tricky to navigate the emotions. I didn't want to do something that was vulgar, or overly sentimental, or violent, and there is a certain dignity to Ives' works of that genre, like the Forth Symphony or The Unanswered Question. So I always had him in mind." So much so, he says, "I found that my relationship with Ives was so deep, I wanted to write a second piece that would be a more congenial remembrance of Ives."

That emerged as My Father Knew Charles Ives, a musical triptych influenced by Adams' own youth in New Hampshire, with sounds of "marching band, and jazz, and lots of memories of my childhood."

Currently, Adams is turning his pen to the West Coast for inspiration. "I'm just at the beginning stages of a work which kind of has a California theme ... called The Dharma at Big Sur. It's for the opening of the new concert hall of the Los Angeles Philharmonic."

Robert Spano made his podium debut with the New York Philharmonic last week, returning to Atlanta just in time for the season-culminating rehearsals and performances of El Nino. And he lays claim to a long history of performing John Adams' music that goes all the way back to his early days at Oberlin.

"With any great composer, as they continue to write they continue to expand both in terms of musical vocabulary and also in terms of expressive range," says Spano. "One of the most extraordinary things about El Nino is how diverse its emotional language is. There are things that are very peaceful, and soothing and beautiful, that are mournful, that are violent, and that are celebratory. It's an amazing palette, emotionally speaking."

Norman Mackenzie, director of the ASO Chorus, wholeheartedly agrees. He has news for anybody who might define John Adams as a minimalist composer. "They're going to be pleasantly surprised if not shocked by the variety of styles they hear in the piece, the sensitive treatment of the text, and the beautiful writing for voice, which I think is stunning in spots," he says.

The choral part is a challenge, even for a "rhythmically driven" group like the ASO Chorus. Nevertheless, there is eagerness among the singers, both because of the appeal of Adams' music and the opportunity to perform it with Robert Spano, arguably th e crown prince of American conductors, at the helm.

"It is impossible to not catch Robert's enthusiasm, and the infectious quality of what he brings to this score, the incredible command of this particular style, and his joy in doing it," says Mackenzie. "He communicates all of that to the singers and players, and to the audience. We couldn't be doing it with anyone who could be more helpful, and that's a real joy. It's been a labor of love for all of us."


A pre-concert talk will be held Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Rich Auditorium.

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