John Adams' The Gospel According to the Other Mary, first performed in 2012 in Los Angeles, is something of an expansion on the composer's El Niño, a Passion story adorned with a variety of contemporary themes and musical materials. Like the earlier work, it features a libretto by longtime Adams collaborator Peter Sellars, and it may be sung on-stage as an oratorio or presented as an opera. Mary Magdalene is indeed a central figure in the work, but actually it is more than the trick perspective the title might imply; as with El Niño Sellars incorporates such devices as set pieces featuring poetry by other writers (this time poet Louise Erdrich plays the central role). Jesus seems to appear as through a prism, embodied by a trio of countertenors: a typical Adams masterstroke. Bach's Passions are obvious antecedents, but Andrew Clements of the London Guardian has accurately pointed out a resemblance to a work by a composer not much mentioned in the same breath as Adams: Leonard Bernstein's Mass. The music has similar ambitions and a similar way, although not so extreme, of veering off into contemporary vernacular materials according to the text. This doesn't suit Adams perfectly, although he takes steps, including a recurring use of the cimbalom, to tie all his diverse materials together. At any rate, the work is never boring and often absorbing; the enthusiasm of conductor Gustavo Dudamel, the vocal performers, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra for the material is palpable; and this sprawling score is clearly recorded. Time will tell whether concert-music big events like this one will have staying power, but there's a lot to chew on here for anyone with the slightest liking for Adams and his democratic, synoptic musical world.
John Adams: The Gospel According to the Other Mary Review
by James Manheim