El Niño spans the millennium

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A Canadian premiere of a major work by American composer John Adams is a rare thing—but it’s not nearly as rare as a Christmas oratorio written by a nonbeliever. And that, as it happens, is another way of describing El Niño, the massive Adams-penned work the Vancouver Bach Choir will unveil this weekend.

“John Adams? I don’t know what he is,” says the choir’s music director, Leslie Dala, on the line from his Vancouver home. “Agnostic, I guess, at best. But he’s said about his piece that he loved [George Frederick Handel’s] Messiah, and he’s always wanted to write something like that. And he said, ‘I envy people with strong religious belief. Mine is shaky and unformed. I don’t know what I’d say, and one reason for writing El Niño is to find out.’ So it’s a piece that does not come from a place of any kind of religious conviction, necessarily. It’s more an exploration of the story—and the myths and the history surrounding it.”

Musically and thematically, the work is just as unusual. For one thing, it requires the services of no fewer than three countertenors—who, in Vancouver, will be Daniel Bubeck, Steven Rickards, and Brian Cummings, all veterans of the work’s 2000 debut.

“The way that Adams writes for those voices seems to conjure up quite a medieval feeling,” Dala notes. “There’s a lot of parallel voices and organum. Generally the orchestration around there is very light, so those three voices really step out into the spotlight.”

But Adams isn’t aiming to horn in on Arvo Pärt’s neoliturgical terrain. Instead, the sonic character of El Niño’s larger choral passages reflect his experience as a child of the 1960s. “There’s almost, dare I say, kind of a rock ’n’ roll feel underneath,” Dala explains. “There’s just this pulsating, driving bass line, and lots of cowbell in one of them. It’s anything but your 19th-century narrative, and that’s what I love about the piece.”

Dala, himself a lapsed Catholic, also enjoys Adams’s kaleidoscopic, millennium-spanning libretto. “I guess you could say it’s a kind of collage,” he says, noting that while some of El Niño’s lyrics are drawn directly from the Bible, others—including a surreal passage in which Jesus slays a dragon—reflect the heretical Gnostic gospels. Still more draw on contemporary poetry, including one sequence written by Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos that links the biblical Herod’s slaughter of the innocents to the Spanish destruction of the Aztec kingdom during the 16th century—and to an unpublicized mass shooting of student protesters during the 1960s.

“Although there may be a lot of radical ideas, it actually reads as a very audience-friendly kind of piece,” says the conductor. “And it’s the storytelling which I think is very powerful, and which it would be hard to find fault with.…In the use of myth and all that, the storytelling is really quite refreshing from all the dogmatic things that people usually get, if that’s how they’re raised. And these are important stories to know, whether we believe them or not.” 

The Vancouver Bach Choir presents El Niño at the Orpheum Theatre on Saturday (December 15).

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