On March 14 and 15, the Houston Symphony presents John Adams’ El Niño. The work is a retelling of the Nativity story through Adams’ mesmerizing music and diverse texts, which were gathered from ancient and contemporary sources by Adams and his longtime collaborator, theater director Peter Sellars.
Guest conductor David Robertson has championed contemporary composers throughout his celebrated career. The Symphony’s Eric Skelly recently talked with David about this powerful work.
Eric Skelly: So many people have tried to characterize John Adams’ compositional style, usually sufficing to slap a label on him that really doesn’t begin to encompass the complexity of what he does. As someone who knows Adams’ scores better than just about anyone, how would you characterize his style?
David Robertson: The musical choices of John Adams lend a great depth and breadth to his compositions. Musical pigeonholes are particularly dangerous with Adams, whose knowledge of the canon of classical music is combined with an interest and fascination with the world around him, including popular culture with all of its contradictions and paradoxes. So, my personal way of thinking about his style is as a combination of refined musical discourse that uses both popular and learned traditions to create works that are informed by both, yet don’t fit easily within those traditions. Perhaps one could say that he is a very serious composer who is not averse to fun—kind of like Mozart.
ES: What can audiences expect to experience in El Niño?
DR: El Niño takes the familiar story surrounding the birth of Jesus and musically helps us to see its continual relevance and importance beyond the Christmas story. In this way, it makes one aware of the miracle of birth and all the wide range of emotions that go along with that. This is achieved with a large chorus, a children’s choir, a small chorus of three countertenors, three soloists who at times take on familiar Biblical roles, and an orchestra that resonates with many different shades of color. It is very beautiful and immensely moving, but also keeps one thinking after the performance.
ES: I’ve seen El Niño characterized as an opera (it does appear to have narrative structure), as an oratorio, and as an opera-oratorio. Can you settle which it actually is?
DR: It is interesting how we think of storytelling in music as either songs, cantatas, oratorios, or operas, and we have difficulty when a work straddles all of these genres. The narrative in El Niño could perhaps be described best as an internal and external meditation in music on the ideas surrounding the human condition, using the Virgin Birth as a departure point.
ES: I understand that among the texts selected for El Niño there are some eye-opening selections from the Apocrypha, such as Jesus slaying a dragon. Can you speak to why these texts were chosen, and what they bring to the traditional Nativity story?
DR: John Adams has worked for a very long time with Peter Sellars, and I believe the choice of the texts was made from their work and discussions together. What I have always found incredible with John’s music is the way it can go deeply into a text that might at first glance seem to be surprising, but upon reflection seems perfectly chosen for the context and expression of the work. Each one of us has a relationship to words that is partly shared and partly individual: we all read the same Madame Bovary and yet create a version of how she looks that is entirely our own. The story of how texts became accepted and canonical is thus another layer of this wonderful work that keeps one pondering long after the final notes have died away.
Don’t miss John Adams’ El Niño March 14 and 15! Learn more and get tickets.