El Nino, by John Adams

El Nino, by John Adams

Picture of the El Nino 
performance, printed in the New York Times 1/13/00 - I just finished with a set of three concerts that were the American premiere of El Nino, an oratorio by John Adams (archived here).

Boy, it was really, really hard. We had seven rehearsals in nine days in the last two weeks leading up to the concerts, and it still didn't really settle in until the second concert. There's some good stuff in there, not for the chorus so much, but the soloists have a chance to shine.

And we had soloists. Wow. Dawn Upshaw and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson were fabulous. Willard White did an excellent job portraying an angry Joseph (wondering who had defiled his wife), and then Herod ordering the slaughter of the innocents. And they did it all memorized, and choreographed. Unbelievable.

There were also three countertenors that Adams used brilliantly, putting them in close harmony to create a truly otherworldly sound. They represented the voice of the angel Gabriel, as well as doing narration. Very cool sound, and very well done.

Kent Nagano was the conductor. He's awesome. He's one of America's leading conductors, and deserves the honor. He knows his stuff, he knows how to get the sound he wants, and his conducting style is exceedingly clear. At one point in a rehearsal, he told us in the chorus to trust him to give us our cues. Normally, we can't rely on a conductor to do that, but him we could, and we got so lazy in relying on him that tonight, he did miss one cue, and we blew our entrance. Oops :)

Great show. It's been an honor to be part of it. John Adams was at each concert, of course, and got a well-deserved standing ovation at the end of each concert. He also came by the chorus and congratulated us. I quote from a note he wrote to us:

John Adams taking a 
well-deserved bow, printed in the LA Times "But for me the peak of the evening was the one piece I really thought was a compositional mistake, "Pues my Dios". We barely ever got it to work in Paris [ed. - at the world premiere last month] (probably because the poor chorus didn't have their books and had to approximate all those rhythmic details by memory). But last night's performance of that number had a mystery and luminosity that I never ever imagined. This, then is one of those moments when a performance brings more beauty and meaning to a piece than the composer ever intended."

It's moments like that that make all the hard work worth it. I spent 32 hours over the past two weeks in rehearsal and performance, 52 hours if you count travel time, so it was an enormous investment of my time. But, on the other hand, how often do you get the opportunity to do something like this?

After the concert this evening, I went and got my score signed by John, Kent, Dawn and Lorraine, mostly for the excuse to say what an honor it was to have worked with them. And to provide me with a memento to prove that it really happened...

The world premiere in Paris was filmed and is available online. Same soloists, same dancers, different symphony and chorus. Still worth watching if you have a high-bandwidth connection.

Some links to reviews of our performance:

Back to Eric's chorus page

Eric Nehrlich's WWW home page / nehrlich@alum.mit.edu