On March 14 and 15, the Houston Symphony presents John Adams’ El Niño, which features spectacular guest soloists along with the Houston Symphony Chorus. A special addition for this production: 25 members of the Houston Grand Opera Children’s Chorus, who range in age from 10 to 17.
We talked with both chorus directors—Betsy Cook Weber, Houston Symphony Chorus, and Karen Reeves, HGO Children’s Chorus—about the challenges of performing this towering modern masterpiece.
Houston Symphony: What role do the choruses play in El Niño?
Betsy Cook Weber, Houston Symphony Chorus: Like Messiah, the chorus plays a very prominent role in telling the story of the Nativity. And, like Messiah, sometimes the chorus is contemplative and sometimes it plays the role of an angry mob. The chorus part is very challenging and very wonderful.
Karen Reeves, Houston Grand Opera Children’s Chorus: Musically, I feel the children’s chorus provides a sweetness at the end of the story. Throughout, there is a good bit of strife, which begins to fade away by the end. I feel this is why John Adams chose to finish the piece with the innocence of young voices.
HS: How long did it take the Houston Symphony Chorus to prepare for El Niño?
BC: We have devoted the larger part of 11 rehearsals to this project. We began working on it on January 7.
HS: What are the challenges that El Niño poses?
KR: For the children, the challenge lies in knowing how to find their pitches and when to sing. There has been a good deal of counting out loud throughout our rehearsals, as a part of knowing where we are and when to sing.
BC: The writing for the adult chorus is very complex, which is ironic given John Adams’ place as a minimalist/post-minimalist composer. There is a lot of the repetition that one expects in minimalism, but that repetition consists of difficult patterns, and once the singer figures out that pattern, Adams diabolically makes a simple shift. It really keeps us on our toes.
The tessitura is sometimes very high. There is one chorus where the men sing in falsetto the entire time. Our guys are doing a great job with this, and it’s not easy. The altos also have moments of extended high tessitura. Our section leader, Jillian Hughes, has devised a plan where her singers can sit out for a bit and then come back in.
I’m not certain the listener will be able to tell how difficult this piece is, however, which is true of many of history’s greatest composers. Mozart and Haydn sound easy, but are usually very difficult. Adams is much the same in that respect. What the listener will hear is fantastically different music that interweaves texts from the Bible with beautiful Spanish poetry. Three countertenors play a prominent role as a “male ensemble.” The solo writing is superb. And the entire work ends with a sublime children’s chorus.
I remember years ago being absolutely mesmerized by Houston Grand Opera’s production of Adams’ Nixon in China. This piece, on first hearing, was even more powerful, and as we have worked on it, I have fallen more in love with it every minute.
Don’t miss John Adams’ El Niño on March 14 and 15! Learn more and get tickets.