The Gospel According to the Other Mary

“[t]he Subject excells every other Subject. The Subject is Messiah.”

– Charles Jennens (referring to now-famous libretto he provided to George Frederic Handel)


And I mean it both ways: as invocation and exclamation. I just witnessed what I believe will be one of the greatest musical-theatrical works of the 21st century, and it's only 2013!

It seems strange to look back and realize that El Nino premiered in 2000. I don't think composer John Adams originally conceived it to be presented dramatically, but I guess his longstanding collaborative relationship with director Peter Sellars inspired them to turn this story of Christ's birth into an "opera." And now, they have looked at the last part of Jesus' life in order to create The Gospel According to the Other Mary. It unfolds very much like a Bach Passion with an Evangelist (here the three countertenors serving as narrators), the characters (Mary Magdalene, her sister Martha, and their brother Lazarus), as well as the chorus (they provide both commentary as well as step in to take part in the action).

So the "Other" woman is Mary Magdalene, too much maligned to me it seems. I remember my sister and I going to our first musicals as children. A trio of shows was touring to Beavercreek, Ohio's Nutter Center, and for whatever reason, our parents bought us a pair and let us go to each by itself. We must have been quite young, maybe 13 and 11. Anyway, as we entered the building a man yelled at us and handed out pamphlets. I'll always remember my sister's innocent voice asking the question (and, in case you are wondering, this really happened): "Karen, what's a whore?" We were going to see Jesus Christ Superstar, and some Christian protesters had come out of anger that Mary Magdalene, portrayed as a prostitute, could love and be loved by Christ in a physical/romantic way. My instinct was to protect my sister who would probably never have picked up these overtones from the storyline anyway. What an education...

Anyway, Peter Sellars has extrapolated the Other Mary's side of the Passion story: how it was Martha who tended to the household duties while Mary sat at Jesus' feet, how Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead, how the women witnessed the Crucifixion, how they came to the empty tomb and finally realized that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead.

With these biblical texts and stories [like Bach, he uses the vernacular which, for us Americans, is English] he adds other poetry [some in Spanish] to construct two multi-scene acts.

Walt Disney Concert Hall was not designed to present opera, so everyone has come up with creative solutions to handle the additional (non-musical) aspects of this production. The costumes were relatively simple, mostly relaying the story through color (blues for Christ's tight knit community, white for the resurrection). The only set pieces were a few platforms and boxes that "became" the table in the Upper Room, Golgotha, the tomb.

I am no movement expert, but it seemed that Mr. Sellars was using both a kind of sign language (certain gestures to reinforce certain words, e.g. "spices" was reflected in the picking up of spices with one hand from another and bringing them to the face/nose as though you would smell them) as well as a lot of intricate movement brought off beautifully by several dancers.

The dancers could either serve as individual characters or, this I thought was even more unique and powerful, as a sort of visual reflection of the inner spirit of a singing character. The woman most often moved alongside Mary, as companion hand-in-hand, as the inner "life force" compelling to move, and in numerous other ways.

The men both could relate to Lazarus and Jesus. Both were incredibly powerful men with very physical choreography, and the death and resurrection scenes (first of Lazarus and then of Jesus) were particularly poignant and provided the arch structure of each act.

John Adams' orchestration was colorful without trying to make a point of it. The use of electric bass was particularly enveloping and effective; the percussionists had many opportunities to shine; and then after many of the most agitated moments there were such expanses of calm and breath. The pacing was wonderful.

Of course the cast was tremendous. I've now been honored enough to hear the legendary Kelley O'Connor live (twice in just about six weeks I think). Dr. Dehning and all of USC is so proud to call her one of their own. Such a great voice and a very engaging actress. Tamara Mumford was one of the most lovely contralto voices I've ever heard - low notes that sound sweet and rich and just as colorful as the rest of her range. I've been told the three countertenors are Indiana people. Go Hoosiers! Russell Thomas as Lazarus also acquitted himself very well.

I could have used a touch more of Kelley's voice in the amplification (it seemed more present in the short rehearsal I observed Tuesday), but otherwise balances were as pretty sweet as they could be.

The Master Chorale was tremendous. One should expect no less. They held their own as actors as well as the fabulous singers they are. Many of the aleatoric effects asked of them were eerily expressive. I really want to see a score. Congrats to each of the 48 members as well as to their fearless leader Grant Gershon, who will be conducting Friday night's performance.

It is hard to imagine being in Maestro Dudamel's situation. The demands of his profession and then demands of home and country must have weighed on him in the last few days, but he was as gracious as ever to deflect and distribute praise all round. That is real grace under fire.

All this to say, if you can see it, go. I think they'll probably release a recording next year, but going to a performance is the 3D immersive experience. I know I'll treasure this night for a long time.

Much of muchness

A lot of projects are coming to a head at the same time. There is both the sense of anxiety and busy-ness and yet the thrill at taking on new challenges.

I was thrilled to be able to sing with the enormous chorus of Mahler's Eight last weekend. I had no real expectations other than this would be a landmark event for the city and for me. The chorus rehearsals had been so much fun. I enjoyed the LAMC only rehearsals, singing next to such fabulous musicians with their beautiful voices. I was intrigued by the challenge of the tutti rehearsals and amazed by the deftness of both Grant Gershon and Gustavo Dudamel at steering a very large vessel through unknown waters.

The view from my seat during a rehearsal break - as Dudamel is among the group standing next to the podium, you can get a sense of the distance between the chorus and conductor

The view from my seat during a rehearsal break - as Dudamel is among the group standing next to the podium, you can get a sense of the distance between the chorus and conductor

Once we started singing with the orchestra, however, the challenge added new frustrations. How could any organization plan for such a feat other than to make educated guesses that might not have handled all considerations. Sightlines were a problem. Acoustics were a problem. I could hardly see the conductor or hear any soloists or orchestra in the first rehearsal, but by the performance enough had changed to make the end result rewarding for me as a performer and seemingly incredibly rewarding for the very warm audience.

No rest though. This weekend LA Opera opens with it company premiere of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra. In my role, I want to brag about the Chorus, but the entire show is excellent - cast, production, orchestra, yum, yum, yum! I hope we are able to bring in large audiences, and I've seen lots of discount deals available online. So... no excuses. Opera lovers, buy your tickets post haste!

In the midst of all this I have been collecting applications for our Chorus auditions. We'll have full sessions again this year certainly. AND I'm preparing a four movement work for the Carnegie Choral Institute. It will be my first time conducting in New York City, and I am tremendously excited to work with so many prestigious people and have friends and family cheering me on at the performances.

I've been missing the opportunity to be conducting out in front, and while a workshop is a bit of an artificial environment I appreciate the chance to make some music with new people in a creative environment.

Mahler, Mahler, and more Mahler

When I was a student at Indiana University, we were required to take quite a few music history classes. I was encouraged to find a course with the legendary Dr. Peter Brown, and the only thing that ever fit in my schedule was his Mahler survey, which I took in my very last semester of my Masters degree. Oh, how I remember the struggle to absorb the gargantuan forms of Mahler's symphonies. And, oh, how I remember a slightly curmudgeonly professor absolutely glow in his rapture at discussing these works. As hard as it was to do well in the course, the course certainly did well by me. Now we in Los Angeles have the Mahler Project. How foolish I was to wonder who would pay to hear all these symphonies played in just a few weeks. It is a wonder that I live in a city that gets so excited about these kinds of events. On my tight budget unfortunately I could only go to Mahler 5. The performance was last night and my first opportunity to witness the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra live. [I do dream of a time when we would celebrate our own North American youth and young people's orchestras while I celebrate the achievements of El Sistema.] Pasion [the catchphrase for Mo. Dudamel's first season] is right. The performers moved with the same energy as the conductor while clearly enjoying the grandiose moments. I missed some more subtle shadings but did get wrapped up (as did the entire audience it seemed) in the joy for performing for the sake of art and of expression, in the uniqueness of Mahler's voice, and the sense of living in the moment.

On February 4 I will be fortunate enough to be one of the many (and I do mean many) participants in a once in a lifetime chance to be a part of the legendary "Symphony of a Thousand." Already the rehearsals have been thrilling. Tomorrow we will get to put the chorus together and see how well we can hold together. I feel so lucky and eager. I dedicate my participation to Dr. Brown and hope to keep delving further into this music and someday conduct it myself.

Getting started with the New Year

Greetings, all,

It's been a while since I've tried blogging, but I figured I should join the 21st century and get myself back out there.

It's so hard to believe it is 2012. I remember the changeover into Y2K so clearly - the hype, the fears - and now we've embraced the whole "Twenty-something" era. Maybe that's a good thing, but somehow the transition into a new year always make me think back to the past and consider how much has changed and how much has stayed the same.

Right now I'm in rehearsals with the Los Angeles Master Chorale. We will be part of a choir of 600 performing with the LA Phil and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra. As you music geeks may have guessed or known already, this is all for Mahler's "Symphony of a Thousand" [his Eighth]. What a masterwork and what a challenge. I first heard of this piece while preparing it for my Masters audition at Yale. Believe it or not, we were asked to conduct sections of this in a choir and piano rehearsal. And, guess what, that took place in 2000. I love opening my full score and seeing the younger me in the heavy markings. I highlighted themes, wrote in quotes, outlined the form.

And now I get to be part of an actual performance, and I get to sing with such esteemed colleagues. It is almost too thrilling for words, but here I am trying to blog again. So it has to be... words, words, words.

Anyway, to all reading this, may 2012 be merry and bright, may we find many good things to back to in this year when we reflect back on this time decades in the future. Cheers!