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Christ Almighty, John Adams' Gospel According to the Other Mary Is Hella Fantastic

Sweet Jesus on a cross! The LA Phil's new recording of The Gospel According to the Other Mary by John Adams is divine. If you gave up music for Lent, break your vow and get your unworthy hands on this sinfully good recording, which came out last week.

Besides Easter Island, is any place more appropriate for the creation of a Passion oratorio than the City of Angels? Premiering at Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2012 with Gustavo Dudamel conducting the L.A. Philharmonic and the L.A. Master Chorale, The Gospel was created by librettist Peter Sellars and composer John Adams, two men with apostolic names and long-time ties to L.A. institutions. Recorded at Disney Hall last year for Deutsche Grammophon (that most staid of European labels - a company whose logo has not changed in 65 years), the work's CD art is a vibrant Boyle Heights mural.

That stuffy yellow DG logo looks out of place stamped on a photo of Latino street art, and at first glance, so does Sellars' assembled libretto, juxtaposing Biblical texts central to European Christianity with 20th-century American tales and expressions of faith.

Sellars' previous textual collages for Adams seemed forced and artificial, but here the different pieces mysteriously meld. His libretto scrapes away centuries of pious grime by focusing on Mary Magdalene, Martha, and Lazarus, finding parallels in the social activism of Dorothy Day and the farm workers movement, or in Orozco's paintings of Christ dispensing angry justice.

The conclusion is particularly miraculous. Mary mistakes the resurrected Jesus for a gardener (John 20:11-16). The transcendental leap of logic Southern Californians make here is that Christ didn't appear in Technicolor Cinemascope with lens flare; instead, he looked like Jesús, the guy in your neighbor's yard with a leaf blower.

Adams' music for Mary's recognition is low-key: no gigantic climax, but rather a quietly clashing harmonic transformation suggesting the gardener morphing into Jesus in Mary's eyes.

This score brings new elements to Adams' vocabulary: extreme dissonance; microtones (to depict the stench of Lazarus' tomb); a recorded chorus of frogs as accompaniment; a jangling, tinkling percussion section that includes tuned gongs and cowbells; and a cimbalom (Hungary's answer to the dulcimer).

The Gospel According to the Other Mary is the successful culmination of Adams' compositional explorations during the preceding decade. New harmonies and orchestral colors convincingly coalesce into what could be a "late style" for Adams, one with room for the joyful, consonant repetition of his earlier work, yet one that can still accommodate Adams' trademarked long, disjunct, yet flowing vocal lines above newer chords and textures.

All the soloists here created these roles. Kelley O'Connor ably negotiates a demanding mezzo part (it dips into alto range). She brings alternating alarm, urgency, confusion, and love to the role of Mary Magdalene in a musical and dramatic triumph. Tamara Mumford is appropriately grounded, yet dark, as Martha, and Russell Thomas shines, especially in his extended solo at the end of Act I, a Passover poem by Primo Levi.

The choral work is compelling, sharp and well-focused in parts, yet appropriately blurred or spooky during the crowd scenes in Act II or the resurrection of Lazarus in Act I. The L.A. Philharmonic plays the bejesus out of Adams' music, with powerful ensemble work and beautiful solos throughout.

Dudamel helps make the performance exciting, which doesn't always happen with recordings of Adams' orchestral music - frequently the rough edges that make his music so much fun in the concert hall get smoothed out in the studio. Highest hosannas and hallelujahs to the conductor, who birthed this work, took it on tour around the world and now has captured its wonder in this magnificent recording.

Audio samples can be heard here.


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