Sitting in Davies Symphony Hall last night for this week’s San Francisco Symphony (SFS) concert, it was hard to avoid thinking that The Gospel According to the Other Mary was a product of Peter Sellars’ scattershot approach to inspiration and realization, for which John Adams was willingly recruited to provide the music. Having led Adams down the primrose path of the Nativity oratorio El Niño, Sellars decided to give the Passion narrative of the Gospels similar treatment. Once again, Sellars conceived his libretto as an amalgam of sacred and secular texts, all set in a contemporary context with only the slightest reference to Biblical times.
As was the case in El Niño, the result was a verbal collage true to the adjective affixed to Sellars’ name in the above paragraph. Those who know the Passion story from the Gospels could ascertain how Sellars chose to unfold it. Whether or not one was disposed to accept the many augmentations about poverty and homeless shelters is another matter. Nevertheless, anyone trying to tease out the what-and-why of the narrative behind this oratorio would probably have been so preoccupied with words coming from all conceptual directions that Adams’ music never rose above the level of background.
This is more than a pity. Adams had clearly put considerable effort into this score. The result served up some of his most elaborate textures rendered through highly imaginative selections for instrumentation. However, because this week’s performance of The Gospel According to the Other Mary was staged, all of the musicians were on the same level, rather than arranged in the tiers of a usual SFS performance. From an acoustic point of view, that meant that all of the instruments were getting in each other’s way, obscuring all paths leading to Orchestra Level listeners in the audience.
As a result, whatever thought Adams had put into his textures got lost in a hopeless muddle. Thus, while the SFS Chorus (whose numbers were significantly reduced) were clearly audible from their terrace seating, all of the solo vocal work was sufficiently lost in that same muddle that it would be unfair to dwell on any of those vocalists at length. The same could be said of conductor Grant Gershon, who was clearly out of his depth in managing all of these resources.
This was an unfortunate consequence of last night’s performance, particularly since the staging by Elkhanah Pulitzer was as scattershot as Sellars’ libretto. As Artistic Curator of San Francisco Opera Lab, Pulitzer is currently based on the other side of Grove Street. Sadly, she did not seem to benefit from this proximity to learn from all the mistakes that James Darrah had made in trying to stage Gustav Mahler’s “Das klagende Lied” in Davies last month. Once again vocalists had to sing through the full force of the orchestra in order to be heard; and, also once again, there was no end of mindless busy-work that ran the gamut from superfluous to just plain silly.
The overall result was a train wreck of spectacle (and, clocking in at two and three-quarters hours, a very slow train wreck) that undermined the interest that any attentive listener might have had in Adams’ music. Fortunately, we may anticipate better circumstances next week with the second SFS concert prepared for the celebration of Adams’ 70th birthday (which took place two days ago). The physical disposition of the Davies stage will go back to “concert normal;” and violinist Leila Josefowicz will appear as soloist in the first SFS performances of Adams’ “dramatic symphony” “Scheherazade.2.” Next week will be all about the music, and that is likely to do far better justice to Adams’ legacy as a composer.