Live Music Theatre: John Adams’ “The Gospel According to the Other Mary” at Disney Hall

A Musical Tidal Wave of Surprises!  

By Norton Wright

New Yorker Magazine’s jazz critic Whitney Balliett in 1959 shorthanded a definition of jazz as “the sound of surprise.”  So today, when so very little in the arts genuinely surprises, the shock and awe generated by contemporary composer John Adams and director/librettist Peter Sellars is the real deal. They truly have “jazz hearts” as their The Gospel According to the Other Mary proves.

In their 2-hour oratorio, performed at Walt Disney Concert Hall Friday night by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and a singer-dancer cast of nine, Adams and Sellars have created a musical show rife with conflict, death, injustice, labor strife, faith, doubt, romance — and miracles. Yes, it’s the account of Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection.  But the action is set in the contemporary slums of Los Angeles and the story is told from the viewpoint of Mary Magdalene, a young woman chafing at the cruelty and injustice of the skid-row life in which she and so many others live.

Given that the giant musical mosaic that Adams has composed (Johnny Richards’ jazz orchestra of yesteryear comes to mind as do the Lydian chromatic tonalities of George Russell), you might easily be swept away from the story by Adams’ pulsing melodic lines, modal harmonies, jazzy tempos and syncopations.  As well as the exotic instrumental orchestrations (including cimbalom, almglocken, gongs, chimes, bass guitar, three thundering percussionists, three featured singers, a trio of powerhouse countertenors singing in the high stratosphere, with brass, woodwind, and string sections delivering a chromatic spectrum from the muscular to the ethereal). So to clarify and balance the story and the musical score, the singers’ libretti were projected like sub-titles onto a screen above the stage to help the audience track the fast and free-wheeling plotline.

Spoiler Warning per the upcoming story synopsis:

The major story beats unfolded as follows —

1) Mary Magdalene and her sister Martha run a sanctuary for homeless women in a Los Angeles slum. A young man, Jesus, comes to live with them and help with the center.

2) Mary realizes Jesus is of a spiritual origin and though she comes to care for him deeply, she struggles with faith and the act of praying.

3) Mary and Martha are overcome with grief when their brother, Lazarus, dies… Compassionate Jesus miraculously brings Lazarus back to life, and the grateful Mary realizes that she has fallen passionately in love with Jesus.

4) In his resurrection of the dead Lazarus, Jesus signals that he is anticipating his own death and resurrection.

5) The police arrest Jesus in Mary and Martha’s homeless center.

6) Mary, Martha, and women friends protest Jesus’ arrest and are themselves brutalized by the police.

7) As Jesus is arraigned before Pilate, another protest by empowered women in California is unfolding. Praying for survival, Dolores Huerte and Cesar Chavez overcome crushing police brutality in a reminder of their 1996 “people’s march” to Sacramento to establish The United Farm Workers Union.

8) Jesus is crucified and buried. Mary mourns — and prays — for him.

9) Mary returns to the garden where Jesus has been buried and is stunned to discover that his body is not there and that he has risen from the dead.  Jesus, disguised as a gardener tending the grounds, comes to Mary and in a sudden and touching moment of recognition, she realizes that Jesus is alive both spiritually and in her heart.

* * * * * * * * * *

John Adams
John Adams

The recounting of Jesus’ passion (suffering) has always made for compelling drama, but in their Gospel of the Other Mary, Adams and Sellars create eye-opening and ear-opening surprises as they contemporize the tale into a heartrending love story of a firebrand young  woman and her man of mystery.

Casting the lovely, young mezzo-soprano Kelly O’Connor as “Mary,” the soulful Tamara Mumford as “Martha,” and the imposing tenor, Russell Thomas, as “Lazarus” is a coup.  As “Narrators,” the countertenor trio of Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley sing with high head tones and otherworldly sonorities worth the price of admission.  Dancers Michael Schumacher, Anani Sanouvi and Troy Ogilvie are strong and inventive, and Sanouvi’s take on Lazarus coming back to life is marked by his breathtaking martial-arts choreography. Life is tough, but returning to it even tougher.

As always, the Los Angeles Philharmonic amazed in its ability to master the most complex of John Adams’ scores, the 50-person Los Angeles Master Chorale (all dressed in raggle-taggle skid-row-like clothes) was equally at home both singing and physically acting out the show’s riot scenes.  And in the Friday night performance, Chorale director Grant Gershon was faultless in replacing conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who had just been called to Caracas to conduct at the memorial service for president Hugo Chavez.

The Gospel of the Other Mary is now headed for performances in Europe and NYC.  But the next time it is performed in L.A., whether you are a jazzhead or a classicist, don’t miss it. It is truly “the sound of surprise.”

To read more posts by and about artist/writer Norton Wright, click HERE.

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