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Adams: Bringing El Niño home to the USA

(June 2001)

Adams: Bringing El Niño home to the USA

“A Major Masterpiece”

Widely admired in its Paris debut last December, John Adams’s Nativity oratorio El Niño scored a decisive triumph in its American premiere, given by the San Francisco Symphony on January 11. As in the Paris performances, Kent Nagano conducted principal singers Dawn Upshaw, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and Willard White; Peter Sellars’s staging, incorporating movement and video projections, required only slight modification for Davies Symphony Hall. Critics from all over the United States converged on San Francisco for the premiere, and many responded with rarely-used superlatives.

In Newsweek, David Gates called El Niño “a great rendering of a great work by a great composer…El Niño exceeds all expectations.” “For the first time in 25 years of music reviewing,” wrote David Patrick Stearns of the Philadelphia Inquirer, “I can say the following about a new work: it’s a major masterpiece….The sound is characteristic Adams: chord structures and orchestrations are lush, dreamy, and glistening with well-buffed colors, and then some. Early on, there’s a deeply arresting convergence of treble instruments—a white light sonority, you might say—suggesting the unbearable intensity of spiritual enlightenment.”

Stated The New York Times’s Bernard Holland, “I can think of no living composer with so original an ear for the sounds large ensembles make. Whether it is the industrial ping of his chords, guitar figures against a pointillistic flute, massed pizzicato against mallet percussion, violent jolts of lower brass or shuddering evocations of water, the listener is made to see through every sonority.” In Daily Variety, Alan Rich called El Niño “a deep and stirring disquisition into the very essence of Faith…Above all, there is the onrushing urgency of Adams’s vocal writing, a new intense, often heartfelt lyricism in his writing unheard before.”

Critics are also praising Century Rolls, a new Nonesuch disc featuring Adams’s 1996 piano concerto of the same title, as played by Emanuel Ax, with Christoph von Dohnányi conducting the Cleveland Orchestra. Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle rated Century Rolls as “one of the composer’s most infectiously delightful recent works…a jazzy, extroverted display piece.” Wrote Billboard, “The most-performed new piano concerto of recent years, John Adams’s Century Rolls glitters and glides like a fancy new car—all well-oiled rhythms, gleaming colors, and top-of-the-line craftsmanship.”

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