Edinburgh International Festival: A bold piece from an American favourite will set the tone for a programme out to celebrate diversity
THIS year's opening concert maintains a link with American composer John Adams that goes back over two decades. In 1988, Edinburgh hosted the UK premiere of his first opera Nixon In China. More recently, in a Festival collaboration with Scottish Opera, Adams' second opera The Death of Klinghoffer was successfully staged at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre.
The Adams connection is re-engaged this year with a performance in the Usher Hall of his dramatic oratorio El Nio – a work first heard ten years ago in Paris in a staged version at the Thtre du Chtelet, which tells the Nativity story from the perspective of Christ's mother, rather than the male perspective of the traditional gospel writers.
In what might seem like a reinterpretation of the narrative formula so stylised by Schutz, Bach or even Handel – the wise men and Angels of the Lord all have their place – an essential difference lies in the handling of the human emotions: the pain and anger of Joseph when he discovers Mary is pregnant; Mary's own unshakeable virtue; and the impact of Jesus's protectiveness towards his mother through the miracles he performed while journeying through the desert.
So what has all this to do with a festival theme that explores the diversity of far-flung cultures, not least the hotbed of Hispanic influence witnessed in the Americas and beyond? The answer lies in Adams' extensive sources of texts, which extends from English mystery plays, the traditional gospels and Latin verse (as early as the redoubtable 12th century feminist Hildegard of Bingen) to the 17th century Hispanic nun Sor Juana Ins de la Cruz and the hard-hitting evocations of pregnancy by the 20th century Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos.
Even the vocal forces gravitate upwards towards the more subliminal and feminine. Apart from a prominent baritone solo covering the blustery figures of Herod and Joseph, the principal roles range from soprano and mezzo soprano to three countertenors and an optional children's chorus. Among the Edinburgh singers, Sir Willard White and Paul Hillier's Theatre of Voices were members of the original Paris cast (also appearing on the Nonesuch recording), and are joined for this Festival opener by Americans Jessica Rivera (soprano) and Kelley O'Connor (mezzo soprano).
The other US import is conductor James Conlon, a familiar face in Scotland from his days as principal guest conductor with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in the 1980s. For this year's festival he teams up with the necessary larger forces of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Edinburgh Festival Chorus, and the excellent National Youth Choir of Scotland.
El Nio, after all, is a work of enormous proportions. Adams' orchestration alone is typically extravagant – incorporating within a full percussion-laden symphony orchestra such trademark sounds as the welter of steel string guitars and synthesiser, while remaining faithful to a musical language that uses minimalism as its bedrock, but from which there is a freedom to explore mixed influences from a deranged boogie-woogie (the unhinged Herod) to exquisite mood painting.
The potential to stage El Nio might seem obvious. Indeed, the original was designed with a flexibility that would allow it to be performed either as a fully staged production, incorporating film and dance, or as a concert oratorio. The first production was directed by Adams' old collaborator and fellow San Franciscan Peter Sellers.
The prospect of a concert performance as the kick-start for this year's music programme should not in any way worry Edinburgh audiences. As the New York Times critic noted after its American staged premiere in San Francisco, Adams's music should not be considered a mere soundtrack. "Experience El Nio on consecutive nights and, on the second night, put your eyes in your pocket and do not let them escape," he advised. "Mr Adams' music deserves no less."
Indeed, of all the so-called American minimalists, he is arguably the most original. While Philip Glass and Steve Reich have remained completely sold on the inbuilt limitations of the style – when did we last hear a truly original sound from them? – Adams appears to use minimalism's constraining principles as a springboard for more expansive thought. Another New York Times' critic was missing the point when, in a review of Nixon in China, he famously commented, "Mr Adams has done for the arpeggio what McDonald's did for the hamburger".
El Nio is no Happy Meal. Nor is it representative of his recent work. Adams has moved further with his music over the past decade, as evidenced in his recent operatic blockbuster, Dr Atomic.
But by its sheer scale and sense of musical spectacle, by its unorthodoxy, originality, sensuality and relevance to the plot that is this year's Jonathan Mills Festival theme, El Nino would appear to fit the bill as the tone-setter for this year's programme. Adams has done it for Edinburgh before; he can do it again.
• El Nio will be performed at the Usher Hall, Friday 13 August.
• Sponsored by Heineken UK.
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