SF Sympony Performs John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary

In February, the San Francisco Symphony performed The Gospel According to the Other Mary by composer John Adams with libretto by Peter Sellars. The event was part of the celebration of Adams’ 70th birthday.

John Adams
[Photo courtesy of San Francisco Symphony]

The Gospel According to the Other Mary is a monumental opus, over two hours in length and featuring a full orchestra, chorus, and staging with the principal singers. The orchestra also included some additional interesting instruments, including this large collection of gongs.

As implied by the name, the libretto is drawn heavily from the New Testament, specifically the story of Mary and Martha of Bethany whose brother Lazarus is raised from the dead by Jesus. But it also incorporates many other modernist elements. The story moves back and forth between the Biblical setting and a more contemporary setting, weaving in scenes of women protesting as part of Cesar Chavez’s farmworkers’ strikes, and Mary witnessing a fellow inmate in jail suffering through a painful drug withdrawal. The setting of Mary and Martha’s home is depicted as a women’s shelter that would not be out of place in any large American city. And the milieu surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion is a modern urban uprising, complete with police sirens.

Another unusual element in this telling of the story is that Jesus is never specifically shown on stage as a character, although he is sometimes represented by a trio of tenors who also act as something akin to a Greek chorus. The full symphony chorus meanwhile acts as a tertiary level of narration, with Biblical quotes, Latin phrases, and more contemporary sources in English and Spanish. All of this makes for a complex setting around the main characters on stage: Mary (Kelly O’Connor), Martha (Tamara Mumford) and Lazarus (Jay Hunter Morris). Mary is the central character – she is listed as “Mary Magdalene” in the program although biblically she is not the same character as Mary of Bethany – introducing the piece and then reappearing frequently with long arias and monologues. Martha is the solid rock providing structure but also her own story running the shelter and caring for her sister and brother. Both women are portrayed as major “fan girls” of Jesus, excited when he comes to town, but each in their own way. Lazarus comes across as a bit of a skeptic and in one scene questions and challenges the somewhat amorphous Jesus.

The simplicity and familiarity of the central story combined with the complexity of the visual and sonic setting make for a compelling performance – even those who cynically eye-roll at “yet another musical setting of Biblical texts” should be impressed by this work. It is also a departure from earlier compositions by John Adams – he is best known for his minimalist works, similar to that of Steve Reich but with a softer tone and west-coast source materials. But there is nothing soft about this piece. It is dark, angry, anguished at times, especially during Mary’s multiple scenes of personal anguish and confusion as well as the tense scenes leading up to the crucifixion. The modern elements blend effortlessly with the biblical elements and help to bring home to brutality and harshness in both contexts.

The two-hour-plus length did seem a bit daunting at first (there was an intermission between acts), but it actually went quite quickly as were were wrapped up in the many aspects of the performance. Overall, it was a great experience and I am glad we were on hand for it. As this is Adams’ 70th birthday year, we are looking forward to hearing more performances of his music, new and old.

The Green Wood, an opera by David Samas

David Samas’ new multimedia opera The Green Wood premiered this Wednesday at Shotwell Studios. The piece, which featured Samas with Laurie Amat, Doug Carroll, Bob Marsh, Grace Renaud, Becky Robinson-Leviton and Jennifer Gwirtz combined visuals, music, inventions, words and dance into an immersive experience centered around the idea and experience of the forest.

[The Green Wood. Photo by Sam Ardrey.]

The Green Wood literally refers to the mixed-media installation that serves as the main set for the piece. It is a visual representation of the elements of the forest, but also serves as a primary musical instrument both through its main dendraphone structure as well as other attached sound-makers such as pine cones, courrugahorns and blocks. Indeed, the great majority of the sound-making in the piece comes from elements found in forests: seeds, stones, water, and primarily wood. These materials were not only in Samas’ many invented instruments but also in the traditional instruments used: cello, string bass and piano. There was also electronics integrated into the sonic fabric via microphones and loopers.

[David Samas and invented instruments. Photo by Sam Ardrey.]

The piece follows 24 hours in the life of a forest, moving from early morning hours through daytime to dusk and finally into late night. The lighting design and ambient sounds guide the audience through this framework. The music often followed the ambient sounds, such as the percussive playing during the early morning hours matching the insects and leaves, but also incorporated a variety of styles from traditional european folk music to throat singing to more esoteric. There was even a butoh piece featuring Bob Marsh in an elaborate tree costume.

[Bob Marsh as a tree. Photo by Sam Ardrey.]

The voices, traditional instruments and invented instruments blended well both acoustically and musically, a result of the strong musicianship in the ensemble and presumably a lot of rehearsal. I am familiar with Carroll, Marsh and Amat from numerous other performances, but this was my introduction to Samas’ range of vocal techniques which included throat singing as well as traditional Western practice. I also liked how well the looping was integrated acoustically, something I noticed particularly during the sections featuring throat singing and the pouring of water.

[Grace Renaud. Photo by Sam Ardrey.]

In many ways, however, the stars were the invented instruments in their visual and sonic variety. Different instruments were introduced as the piece unfolded, some were very polished and complex while others were incredibly simple, such as seeds poured onto ceramic plates.

[Becky Robinson-Leviton as the Nymph of the Flowers. Photo by Sam Ardrey.]

The performance sought to engage the audience beyond sight and sound with the use of incense made and the serving of a tea made from nettles and flowers. These were enhancements to the experience and not overbearing.

[Photo by Sam Ardrey.]

The was a dissonance between the text of the piece and the immersive and celebratory qualities of the music and visuals. It was dark at times, lamenting both environmental destruction and the dislocation of humans from natural habitats that nourish them. It is a challenge to make such topics not come across as didactic, but that could also be seen as part of the piece itself.

Overall, it was a great and unique performance, and it was well received by the audience on opening night. The show has performances tonight (Friday 3/22), tomorrow night (Saturday 3/23) and a Sunday matinee at Shotwell Studios. I recommend seeing it if you can.