El Niño is an enormous achievement

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By John Adams. A Vancouver Bach Choir production. At the Orpheum Theatre on Saturday, December 15

Most 21st-century composers would kill to have their work considered relevant. Few, though, would care to have their relevance confirmed by a mass killing.

Such was the situation with American composer John Adams’s El Niño, which received its Canadian premiere last Saturday. Although in most regards an alternative retelling of Jesus Christ’s birth, this unbeliever’s oratorio strives for contemporary resonance by making parallels between the biblical King Herod’s slaughter of the innocents and other, more recent massacres, such as the Mexican government’s massacre of student protesters during the turbulent ’60s. 

Coupled with Adams’s shimmering, elegant, and sometimes surprisingly forceful music, the strategy works: as performed by the Vancouver Bach Choir, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, and the Vancouver Bach Children’s Chorus, all under Leslie Dala’s confident baton, El Niño is clearly a modern-day masterpiece.

But listening to this pointedly pacifistic work only a day after the latest American gun outrage was far more than an extraordinary aesthetic experience: it was also a deeply emotional undertaking. From various post-show conversations, all deeply thoughtful, it was clear that the audience—still reeling from all the statistics, both pertaining to the Newtown, Connecticut, slaughter and to the astonishing number of gun-related deaths the U.S. endures every year—really got Adams’s message.

Of course, this doesn’t diminish the fact that, musically, El Niño is also a enormous achievement. From the ominous strings and foreboding trombones of its opening moments to the rock ’n’ roll–inspired passages towards the end, it’s a cornucopia of surprises—and few of those are more striking than Adams’s use of a trio of countertenors to voice some of the more striking texts.

Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, and Steven Rickards—all veterans of El Niño’s world premiere in 2000—did seem slightly off-balance at first, perhaps because they were battling the orchestra to be heard. It didn’t take long, though, before they declared themselves the unofficial stars of the show with their eerie, three-part invocation of the Angel Gabriel’s address to the Virgin Mary. I am not a religious person, nor do I believe in virgin births, angels, or holy ghosts. Still, their singing in this passage gave me chills, an effect they subsequently repeated on more than one occasion.

Of the other soloists, both bass-baritone Gregory Dahl and soprano Jessica Rivera were effectively direct; the latter also looked appropriately rapturous while enacting the role of Mary. Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó shone even brighter, and it’s probably worth pointing out that my guest for the evening, a native Spanish speaker, praised the Hungarian-Canadian singer for her impeccable accent while delivering Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos’s floridly atmospheric texts.

Further sections of the libretto were drawn from the King James Bible, the Gnostic Gospels, the Catholic mystic Sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz, and Nicaraguan poet Rubén Dario, among others. Adams’s music was similarly kaleidoscopic, and high praise must go to Dala and the VSO musicians for realizing so many different colours and timbres so effectively.

Arguably, the most powerful writing came after intermission, in the gruelling “And He Slew All the Children”. Its tolling tubular bells and darkly chilling brass blasts were unusually funereal for a nativity oratorio, but were undeniably—and viscerally—appropriate for Saturday’s sombre mood.

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