Friday, December 03, 2010

John Adams conducts El Niño

My first reaction after sitting down at Davies Hall on Thursday night was that there were too much electronics on stage. The amplified orchestra, chorus & soloists made for a loud 2 and a half hour performance of El Niño. I liked the idea of using a trio of countertenors, all dressed in white, to represent the angel Gabriel. Their timbre & their close, medieval, harmonies communicate a sense of the supernatural. Countertenor Daniel Brubeck sings freakishly high, at one point even joining the mezzo & soprano. I felt manipulated by the surprise entrance of a chorus of little girls at the end, though.

I was pleased that I could always understand the soloists when they were singing in English, though the chorus was not intelligible to me at all. Dawn Upshaw's velvety singing has the clarity of speech, & she looked consistently concerned & anxious when portraying Mary. Michelle DeYoung sang with dramatic power & control. Jonathan Lemalu's voice is big without being blustery, & he had nicely contrasting characterizations for the insecure, confused Joseph & the threatening Herod. I was distracted that all the soloists but the countertenors alternately sang from memory & then needed to read music from binders. John Adams as a conductor spends all his time giving clear beats with his right hand but is otherwise uninflected. He looks down at his score rather than at the orchestra. I saw him adjust a volume control next to the podium during the final number.

This performance was staged, with an acting area at the front & wings for entrances & exits at the back. The conductor was off to the right, far away from the violins. The acting area contained a table, chairs & a mini fridge with a lamp on it. I kept thinking that something was going to be in the mini fridge & was frustrated that it remained closed for the entire performance. The sad little tree from Charlie Brown's Christmas Special was placed on stage for the 2nd half. One of the countertenor angels had a tinfoil star that Ms. DeYoung then placed on the tree.

There were several empty seats in front of us in the center orchestra after intermission. After the performance, we ran into John Marcher, who had a lot of comparisons to make with the premiere performance 10 years ago. Somehow, the Opera Tattler got the idea that one of the countertenors was wearing Axel Feldheim's uniform.

§ Project San Francisco: John Adams conducts El Niño
Conductor: John Adams

Dawn Upshaw: soprano
Michelle DeYoung: mezzo-soprano
Daniel Bubeck: countertenor
Brian Cummings: countertenor
Steven Rickards: countertenor
Jonathan Lemalu: bass-baritone

San Francisco Symphony Chorus
San Francisco Girls Chorus; Susan McMane, Director
San Francisco Symphony

Director: Kevin Newbury

John Adams: El Niño

Thu, Dec 2, 2010 8:00pm
Davies Symphony Hall


Civic Center said...

For an interesting take by John Adams on the performance, including what he was doing with the monitor at the end, check this out:

And what do you mean about feeling "manipulated by the surprise entrance of the girls' chorus"? Do you mean to tell me you didn't realize the piece ended with that wonderful "Palm Tree" chorus for guitar and children's chorus? That's one of the best parts.

Axel Feldheim said...

Excellent link! Thanks for solving the mystery of that box. Still, the engineer in me thinks that if you start adding components on top of components to solve problems, there may be something wrong with the underlying design.

Unlike just about everyone else following the SF music scene, I did not attend the premiere of El Niño, so this is my first encounter with it live. There were times when the staging made me think I was at the school Christmas pageant, & this ending was one of them. It is nice instrumentation, but I did not like the sound of the amplified guitar.

Civic Center said...

Oh, dear. In my memory from the premiere ten years ago, the guitar wasn't amplified. As far as the school Christmas pageant staging, double oh dear. I was appalled by the Peter Sellars art film and writhing dancers ten years ago, but this "staging" doesn't sound all that much better. They really don't need to have a set or staging at all. Just play the music which speaks for itself (and which I happen to love). Going tonight and will see/hear for myself.

Axel Feldheim said...

Well, I am glad that I did not have to figure out how to watch a film & listen to the music at the same time. I think I could have gotten as much out of this piece in a less stagey concert version. As you say, the music speaks for itself, & the soloists impressed me very much.

Civic Center said...

I loved it tonight. The staging didn't bother me, particularly after Sellars' histrionics, and if there was amplification/electronics, I didn't notice it. And the finales for both acts left me completely verklempt.

Axel Feldheim said...

Glad to hear that El Nino had just as powerful an effect on you 10 years later. Perhaps because I was seated relatively close to the stage, I was more bothered by the electronic amplification.

Civic Center said...

Dear Axel: Either they had gotten their amplification act together by Saturday night or I was seated in the right section (left orchestra, row V). It wasn't too loud and didn't sound electronic except for the synthesizers which are supposed to sound electronic. And yeah, I haven't been able to get the music out of my head ever since Saturday.