Gustavo Dudamel, who will lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic on its first visit to Boston since 1983 on Sunday, arrives here in the midst of controversy. As the Globe and others have reported, Dudamel has faced scrutiny for his refusal to condemn the actions of the government of President Nicolas Maduro in his native Venezuela.
Away from the political sphere, though, Dudamel seems to be piloting the Philharmonic with the kind of dynamic intensity that made him the world’s most sought-after conductor when he assumed its music directorship in 2009. Happily, he seems to be championing American music of the present and recent past. On the Philharmonic’s tour, he is conducting the First Symphony of John Corigliano, an anguished memorial to the victims of AIDS composed in 1988. And Deutsche Grammophon has just released Dudamel’s recording of John Adams’s recent oratorio “The Gospel According to the Other Mary,” which the Philharmonic co-commissioned and premiered in May 2012. It is a remarkable work.
The “Other Mary” of the title is Mary Magdalene, and the piece tells the story of Christ’s Passion through her eyes and those of her brother Lazarus and sister Martha. It is clearly a successor to Adams’s nativity oratorio “El Niño,” composed in 2000: Like that work, “The Other Mary” straddles opera and oratorio, and its libretto — assembled by Adams and his longtime collaborator, Peter Sellars — mixes biblical texts with other writings that bend the story toward contemporary themes of social justice. As “El Niño” reflected more generally on a child entering the world, “The Other Mary” is a profound meditation on suffering and oppression everywhere.
There are other links, such as the group of three countertenors that narrates much of the action. And yet the music points to something radically new in the composer’s oeuvre. It is edgier, more dissonant, and more abruptly wrenching than any Adams piece I know. Those spacious, tonally expansive sections, familiar from other pieces, remain, but mixed in are stretches of dark color and abrasive harmony that make it sound almost avant-garde.
A comparison between the openings of the two oratorios is telling. “El Niño” opens with the almost static chorus “I Sing of a Maiden.” “The Other Mary” begins in medias res, with acerbic chords that accompany an autobiographical passage from Dorothy Day: “The next day in the city jail we were searched for drugs.” Relentless rhythmic shifts underscore the nervous anxiety surrounding the events being described.
Throughout the passage depicting Lazarus’s death, there are ominous rustlings in the orchestra; at his resurrection the instruments slither eerily, and the chorus erupts in a kind of primal wail. In the scene at Golgotha the chorus becomes a shouting, mocking mob, as the orchestra murmurs darkly underneath. There are marvelous instrumental details throughout, including wild obbligatos in the winds, a cimbalom and bass guitar, and an astonishingly varied use of percussion effects.
Dudamel leads the Philharmonic as well as the Los Angeles Master Chorale and an array of soloists in a performance of total confidence. Whether “The Gospel According to the Other Mary” signifies a new avenue in Adams’s composing or a diversion remains to be seen. But its originality and intensity of vision are breathtaking.
On the horizon
Even though the spring music season is in a particularly intense phase, it’s still worth looking ahead, and many organizations have announced offerings for the summer and beyond.
The Rockport Chamber Music Festival, the flagship summer gathering of Rockport Music, opens with a gala concert on June 6 featuring the Emerson String Quartet playing Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Quartet and Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet. The concert is the Emerson’s first appearance in Eastern Massachusetts in its new configuration, with British cellist Paul Watkins. Two days later, the Emerson’s former cellist, David Finckel, visits Rockport with his wife, pianist Wu Han, for a wide-ranging program of Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Debussy, and Britten. Other highlights in the five-week festival are the Rockport debut of MacArthur-winning pianist Jeremy Denk, playing Ives and Bach (June 29); a “Schubertiade” evening featuring festival artistic director, David Deveau (June 20); and two concerts by the superb Calder Quartet (July 10 and 12). It closes out with Imani Winds playing its arrangement of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” (July 13). Subscriptions go on sale March 27, single tickets April 16. www.rockportmusic.org
The Boston Landmarks Orchestra opens its summer season of concerts on the Charles River Esplanade on July 16 with Carl Orff’s ever-popular “Carmina Burana,” along with music by Boston composer Larry Bell and Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Waterfront.” Other Landmarks concerts include an evening of Latin music and dance (July 23), a collaboration with Boston Lyric Opera (Aug. 6), and a program of spirituals followed by Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony (Aug. 13). The orchestra will perform family concerts in Charlestown (July 9) and Jamaica Plain (July 13). All concerts are free. www.landmarksorchestra.org
Looking further ahead, the Cantata Singers will begin their 2014-15 season with the premiere of “Eve,” a new work by Elena Ruehr for chorus and orchestra with a text drawn from Genesis. Ruehr’s piece will be on a program with two Bach cantatas (Nov. 8). The ensemble will also give its first performance of Rachmaninoff’s Vespers on Jan. 24, 2015. The two other concerts include Mozart’s Mass in C minor (March 20) and a pairing of the Te Deum by Czech composer Jan Dismas Zelenka with Bach’s Magnificat (May 10). Subscriptions go on sale May 9, single tickets June 15. www.cantatasingers.org
Correction: Because of a reporting error, the Classical Notes column in Friday’s “g” section mischaracterized an appearance by conductor GustavoDudamel in Caracas last month. Dudamel did not appear publicly with Venezuela’s president, Nicolas Maduro, when the conductor led a performance marking the anniversary of the country’s El Sistema music program.