Ravinia has come full circle with the John Adams oratorios.
Having opened its summer season a decade ago with the renowned American composer's "El Nino" — a choral and instrumental meditation on the Nativity — the festival is crowning its penultimate weekend with the Midwest premiere of Adams' putative sequel to that work, his postmodern Passion play "The Gospel According to the Other Mary."
Taking part in Saturday's performance of "The Other Mary" will be the chorus and vocal soloists for whom it was written — the Los Angeles Master Chorale, mezzo-sopranos Kelley O'Connor (as Mary) and Tamara Mumford (as her sister Martha), and tenor Russell Thomas (as their brother, Lazarus). Master Chorale director Grant Gershon will conduct these "original cast" members along with the Chicago Philharmonic.
Adams can't seem to resist tackling big issues. "The Other Mary" audaciously combines a retelling of New Testament accounts of Jesus' crucifixion and the suffering of his most steadfast female follower, Mary Magdalene, with prose and poetry evoking the oppression of women and the poor through the centuries. The collagelike libretto is by stage director Peter Sellars, Adams' longtime collaborator on such works as "El Nino" and "Doctor Atomic," which Lyric Opera produced in 2007.
Adams, 66, conceived his modern Passion drama as companion piece to "El Nino," a work with which it shares certain musical and philosophical similarities. The earlier work offers a feminist perspective on Jesus' birth; the later opus, a feminist perspective on Christ's death.
"This piece oscillates between a very intense emotionalism and violence — you cannot portray the crucifixion without it — and moments I hope people will experience as graceful (spiritual) uplift," the composer explained in a recent phone interview. "Very often that sense of grace arrives with the choral portions of the oratorio."
The self-critical Adams is seldom completely happy with the initial performances of his works, typically returning to his studio in Berkeley, Calif., to modify or rework parts of them based on what worked and didn't work at the premieres; "The Other Mary" is one such piece. At the oratorio's premiere by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with Gustavo Dudamel conducting, in May 2012, reportedly about a quarter of the audience fled at intermission. Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed called it "an unfinished masterpiece."
The composer has since tweaked and tightened "The Other Mary" for a second series of performances the philharmonic and Dudamel gave in March, this time in a version staged by Sellars and subsequently presented by the orchestra on tour in Europe and New York, and recorded for release on Deutsche Grammophon in spring 2014. The staged version will not travel to Ravinia, but the revised concert version will.
When Adams first considered adding his name to the roll call of great artists — from Michelangelo to Bernini to Caravaggio to J.S. Bach — who have depicted the Passion of Christ, he doubted his moral and spiritual powers were worthy of the undertaking. The fact that Adams is an admitted agnostic made climbing that particular Everest all the more daunting.
"You do have to have strength and humility to approach this subject," he said.
Mustering all the strength and humility at his disposal, Adams sequestered himself in his studio almost daily for 18 months; even so, he was perilously late in delivering the parts to the performers in time for the first rehearsal.
The worldwide critical response to the revamped "Other Mary" has generally been positive, with critics such as the New Yorker's Alex Ross hailing the piece as "an immensely potent work" containing "some of the strongest, most impassioned music of Adams' career."
Even so, the composer has received emails from religious experts assailing his allegedly shoddy biblical scholarship — ignoring his and Sellars' disclaimer that their Mary Magdalene is a composite of several biblical women, not a figure faithful to theology or the scriptures.
"One writer in England said, 'I don't understand what this story has to do with the Passion,'" Adams remarked, with a laugh. "I thought that was amazingly clueless, because of course it has everything to do with it. To try the find the historical Mary would have been a fruitless, meaningless search. Our Mary is a mythic archetype of a damaged woman who has that self-loathing typical of a lot of abused women, who at the same time demonstrates a sincere yearning for revelation and love."
Indeed, the characterizations of Mary Magdalene and Martha are informed by passages drawn from writers as diverse as the medieval abbess Hildegard of Bingen and Dorothy Day, an American journalist and social activist who led the Catholic Worker movement, which aided the poor and homeless during the 1930s.
Welz Kauffman, Ravinia's president and CEO, thinks he knows why works with profoundly spiritual subject matter such as "The Other Mary" resonate so powerfully with audiences in our secular era.
"I think that among audiences there is a primal yearning for the spiritual experience and, at the same time, a need for a different kind of interpretive look at that experience, one that puts it through a 21st century lens," he explains. "When you get a composer who is willing to go dangerous, as John always is, as well as go spiritual, which he always is, it's a pretty great combo."
John Adams' "The Gospel According to the Other Mary" will receive its Midwest premiere by soloists, the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Chicago Philharmonic under the direction of Grant Gershon, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Ravinia, Green Bay and Lake Cook roads, Highland Park; $25-$50, $10 lawn; 847-266-5100, ravinia.org.
Lyric returns to Millennium Park
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra may not be favoring Chicagoans with its usual free community concert at Millennium Park this summer, but Lyric Opera most assuredly is, and it's this weekend. The company's annual freebie to the city will take place at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion.