John Adams' attempt at creating a Messiah for the modern age had its first Los Angeles performances in March of 2003. I had been in the city about six months, and although I was constantly concerned about money and left with no job security due to my uneven temping stints, I ran down to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and snapped up cheap seats to see the final Sunday matinee of the work.
Frankly, at the time I was more interested in the directorial efforts of Peter Sellars than the music itself. I had the opportunity to hear Sellars talk about his work and his ideas about theater when I was in grad school in Pittsburgh, and he seemed a bit like a mad genius to me. His ideas were intensely political and frustratingly cluttered with his agenda. Although I sympathized with his views, I was too immersed in "being a playwright" to get behind the idea of manipulating a classical text to investigate modern woes. At least not in the aggressively unconcerned way he described. I specifically remember a description of a production of a Shakespeare he was either planning to stage or had recently staged, and not once during his conversation did he actually talk about the play.
I'm less conservative about such matters than I was then, but Sellars still has the power to make me crazy. JW and I saw a production at REDCAT last season of his For An End to the Judgment of God/ Kissing God Goodbye which began with him standing in front of the set and explaining the production to us. We were then presented with a high-concept dramatization of a manic Artaud text and an indignant June Jordan poem, and, because we'd been instructed by the director on how to think about it before it began, its impact was sadly reduced. As unusual a performance and pastiche as it was, it was made small and simplistic by the pre-performance lecture.
Still, as mad -- and maddening -- as Sellars seems to be, there's also that "genius" impression he left, and I felt I had to pounce on the opportunity to see a work he'd staged. My memory of that performance is a fond one, but I do recall being confounded by the synthesis of elements. The music, with its churning minimalism, lyric arias and strange, apocryphal, digressive take on the nativity story; the stylized, abstracted staging; and the attractive, modern film were all engaging on their own, but I had no idea how to put the pieces together. My attention flagged on occasion, I wanted to be riveted, but found myself only intermittently moved.
This is why the concert performance of El Nino last month was so powerful I had to see it twice to absorb it all. Aside from the gratefulness I felt at getting to enjoy the music uncluttered by Sellars' ideas about it, I took great pleasure in the intimacy that The Walt Disney Concert Hall provided to the experience of the piece. There isn't a single seat in that space that is as detached from the performance as my nosebleeds at Dot Chandler were. Adams' oratorio -- again, a take on the Christ story constructed with apocryphal texts and modern Latin American poetry (Sellars contributed to the choice of texts, to his great credit) -- manages to open up the story, removing it from the reverent retelling found in the traditional Christmas music and Advent services that has formed my understanding of the nativity. Through Adams' choice of texts, he places the story boldly in the realm of myth -- a realm in which the story surely belongs -- and by doing so, he emphasizes the beauty and the poetry of not just the myth but the Christian faith...and by extension all faith and the very presence of faithfulness in the human animal. Hopping from unfamiliar stories about the baby Jesus calming ferocious dragons to a stunning conclusion consisting of a children's choir repeating the phrase "alone, poetry," El Nino contextualizes the Christian faith in such a way that one might call dismissive if it weren't so emphatic, so caring, so poetic.
As for Adams' score, it's so marvelous I don't even know where to begin. LAWeekly's Alan Rich takes a stab here, and Mark Swed does the same here and here.
Listen to excerpts here, if you like. I recommend you purchase a copy and listen to it ASAP, and uninterrupted. Perhaps with headphones. And turn the volume up, too. The crescendo from "The Annunciation" into "For With God Nothing Is Impossible" alone will make you shiver.
Now do you understand why I made JW sit through it a second time with a broken wrist? And believe me, he did so happily!