Today, I had the pleasure of seeing John Adams’ ‘El Niño’ played by the SLSO, and the St. Louis Symphony Chorus.
I’ll start by saying that I had extremely high expectations going into this. I usually try to check my bias at the door along with my coat and hat, but with John Adams it’s difficult. He’s one of my very favorite composers, and definitely my favorite American one.
That being said, I think that I went to the Powell Hall today expecting another ‘Nixon in China’ or ‘Doctor Atomic’. That was a mistake. ‘El Niño’ is nothing like either of those. ‘El Niño’ is an oratorio about the birth of Jesus Christ.
I thought the instrumentation and orchestration were outstanding. John Adams is one of the most discernible composers of the 20th century, in my opinion; his work cannot be mistaken for the work of anyone else. His incredible understanding of the orchestral setting gives him a real advantage.
I thought that the chorus parts were really well done, and well sung. I don’t really consider myself an expert on vocal performance, so I’ll just add that I thought that all six soloists were great, and that the baritone was particularly fantastic. He sounded a lot like James Maddalena (who played Nixon in ‘Nixon in China’, and who was also in ‘Doctor Atomic’).
I suppose I felt like the overture section could have been played a bit better by the orchestra. They sounded a bit stiff and disjointed at first, but eventually fell into the stride of the piece. Most John Adams pieces require extreme technical precision, and I felt like some members of the orchestra may not have been up to the challenge. Granted, it was an afternoon show and the house was only half-full. I don’t know if that’s an excuse.
Either way, ‘El Niño’ was a mostly solid program- another good entry in the canon of performances I’ve seen of Adams’ work (David Robertson always includes at least one John Adams piece in each season, which I think is great). I heard someone say on the radio today that the SLSO is the world’s leading interpreters of John Adams’ music, which I think is really cool. Sometimes it feels good to be in the center of things.
And in the rock n’ roll scene…
I just got ahold of Andrew Bird’s new album, Noble Beast. I’ve been a serious fan of his music for years now, and he never ceases to impress me. For those who don’t know, he’s a folk-rocker who sings, whistles, plays guitar, plays violin, bangs on things, accompanies himself on glockenspiel, and uses a looping machine so that he can do all of those things at the same time. He usually performs alone, and he is usually the only one who performs on his albums, which are heavily orchestrated.
Noble Beast is his best album. He builds on what he was trying to do on the last album, and it works. In his last one, Armchair Apocrypha, he started working with Martin Dosh and doing more experimenting with percussion and rhythms, which was a good contrast to all his strings and singing. I felt like the final product of Armchair Apocrypha was disappointing- I had seen him play the songs many times live, and I didn’t feel like the album captured the essence and feeling of many of them.
Andrew Bird’s new album takes everything good from his past two albums, and polishes it into a crisp, exciting new collaboration. I feel like it’s his most cohesive work, and the best display of all of his talents combined. In that way, the new album is reminiscent of John Adams’ career as a post-minimalist.
When you look at John Adams in the context of 20th century music, he’s really one of the first people to take elements from almost all facets of the musical century and use them to his advantage. His music contains elements of atonality, serialism, minimalism, etc. In a way, John Adams represents the ultimate achievement of the whole of 20th century music in the same way that Noble Beast represents Andrew Bird’s many efforts as a musician. Maybe that’s a stretch, but it makes sense to me.
Anyways, pick up Noble Beast- it’s a really fantastic album.