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Composed: 2000
Length: 120 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (= piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets (2nd = bass clarinet), 2 bassoons (2nd = contrabassoon), 3 horns, 3 trombones, percussion (glockenspiel, triangles, gong, almglocken, guiro, maracas, crotales, high cowbells, temple block, tam-tam, chimes, claves, 2 temple bowls), 2 guitars, harp, piano (= celesta), sampler, strings, mixed chorus, children’s chorus, three countertenors, and soprano, mezzo-soprano, and baritone soloists

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 13, 2003, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting, with soprano Dawn Upshaw, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, bass Willard White, Theatre of Voices, Los Angeles Master Chorale, and Los Angeles Children’s Chorus

Probably the best-known oratorio is Handel’s Messiah, although it is not typical of the genre, or even of Handel’s other oratorios. Adams says that he had wanted to write a Messiah of his own, a work confronting not only the Nativity of Christ but also the miracle of birth generally.

“The piece is my way of trying to understand what is meant by a miracle. When I recently reread some of the New Testament gospels I was struck as never before by the fact that most of the narratives are little more than long sequences of miracles,” Adams said at the time of the premiere. “I don’t understand why the story of Jesus must be told in this manner, but I accept as a matter of faith that it must be so. The Nativity is the first of these miracles, and El Niño is a meditation on these events. In fact, my original working title was How Could This Happen? This phrase, taken from the Antiphon for Christmas Eve, also must surely have been uttered by me at the births of my own son and daughter.”

In a talk given at the Centro Cultural de México in Paris, Adams elaborated on the basic elements of El Niño:

“The narrative structure of my piece follows very carefully the Biblical version in the manner of Messiah. Narrative passages alternate with arias and choruses that meditate or reflect on the principal themes. Among those could be mentioned the mystery of the Conception and the miracle of the Nativity (and I should say, not only the birth of Christ, but also that of all children). Other themes: the suspicion and jealousy of Joseph, the pregnancy of Mary (and of all women), the paranoia of Herod (and of all tyrants), and the theme of exile.”

In a marked departure from the Messiah model, these themes are expressed through a great range of non-Biblical writing. Interwoven with the basic narrative line is contemplative and celebratory commentary. In a piece about birth, Adams wanted to include women’s words, and Sellars drew his attention to Latin American poetry. The texts include poems by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648/51?-1695), Rosario Castellanos (1925-1974), Gabriela Mistral (1899-1957), Rubén Darío (1867-1916), and Vicente Huidobro (1893-1948). The Biblical texts include familiar Old Testament prophecies and New Testament Nativity accounts, as well as writings from the Apocrypha, non-canonical texts from the early Christian era. There are anonymous verses from the medieval Wakefield Mystery Plays, a passage from a Christmas sermon by Martin Luther (1483-1546), and the hymn “O quam preciosa” by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179).

It was this literature from Latin America, rather than musical sources, that most decisively influenced El Niño.

“There is nothing much in El Niño that sounds like Latin America,” Adams says. “Certainly I didn’t intend it. I was very touched, though, to receive so many warm letters from Latin Americans about El Niño. I was really worried about the opposite, complaints about my text-setting or about plundering another culture. The language is so wonderful.”

Part I begins “I Sing of a Maiden,” an anonymous English carol set by many composers. Adams sets it as a polyphonic chorus, an anticipatory gathering of voices that sets the stage for the appearance of Mary. She receives the Annunciation from the angel Gabriel (sung by a trio of countertenors), in words from one of the Wakefield Mystery Plays. Mary here is sung by the soprano soloist, but this dialog leads directly into the first of the great poetic reflections that cover the work with canopies of contemplation. This is Rosario Castellanos’ poem “La anunciación,” now sung by the mezzo soloist. Four poems by Castellanos – the novelist and poet who was Mexico’s ambassador to Israel, where she died in a freak household accident – are central to both the shape and the spirit of El Niño.

“The principal voice of this piece – we could say the heart of the piece – is that of Rosario Castellanos,” Adams says. “I am embarrassed to confess that before beginning work on this piece I had never heard the name of Rosario Castellanos. And I suspect that 95% of North Americans likewise do not know her name. But that situation doubtless will change during the coming years as the astonishing gift of these Mexican poets comes to be recognized.”

The soprano soloist, the countertenors, and the chorus return for Mary’s visit to her cousin Elisabeth and the Magnificat, Mary’s great paean of joy and acceptance. Adams sets the Magnificat as a rather serious dramatic statement, emphasizing commitment with roiling undercurrents in the orchestra.

After this the focus turns to Joseph and his bitter suspicion and self-pity, with texts drawn mainly from the apocryphal Gospel of James. In this sequence is the most overtly Handelian of all the individual numbers, “Shake the Heavens,” on a prophecy from Haggai that Handel also used in Messiah. There is much violent shaking in the orchestra and fiercely shuddering writing for the baritone soloist.

Following this comes the birth, first in the two voices of Mary – soprano and mezzo – singing another Castellanos poem, “Se habla de Gabriel” (Speaking of Gabriel – Castellanos’ son, not the annunciatory angel). As a coda, Joseph sings with amazed wonder of the sudden stillness at the miraculous moment.

The first part ends with an ensemble finale. The soloists sing an urgent setting, at once exultant and ominous, of “The Christmas Star,” a poem by Gabriela Mistral (pseudonym for Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga), the Chilean poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945, the first Latin American writer to do so. To this the chorus adds a flowing chant setting of Hildegard’s 12th-century hymn “O quam preciosa,” an expressively apt counterpoint both musically and textually.

If Part I has obvious connections to Handel and the Christmas portion of Messiah, Part II suggests Berlioz’ “sacred trilogy,” L’enfance du Christ (The Childhood of Christ). The emphasis on Herod and the slaughter of the innocents and the flight into Egypt, textual expansion of the Biblical narrative, structural grouping into dramatic scenes, and vividly colored orchestration are common to both works.

Part II opens with “Pues mi Dios ha nacido a penar” (Because my Lord was born to suffer), a text by the 17th-century Mexican poet Sor Juana. In prefiguring Christ’s suffering, the poem also sets up Herod’s murderous duplicity, and Adams sets this as a gracefully drooping, responsive lullaby for mezzo and chorus, with an almost antic violin obbligato.

Adams uses Bible verses, from Isaiah and Matthew, to introduce Herod and the three kings. “The Three Kings,” a gentle poem by the Nicaraguan writer Rubén Darío, allows each of the three countertenors an individual voice. This sequence closes with an evocatively leaping love song for the baritone, “Dawn Air,” by the Chilean writer Vicente Huidobro.

The slaughter of the innocents is briefly and bluntly described in a curt chorus, which leads directly into “Memorial de Tlatelolco,” the largest single number in El Niño. The text, another poem by Castellanos, is a deeply disturbed and disturbing lament. In 1968, student protests in Tlatelolco Square in Mexico City were met with a massive military response. Officials admitted to 32 deaths, but the real number — estimated in the hundreds by journalists – was buried in the ensuing cover-up. Adams’ setting has all the slow, intense eloquence of the other Castellanos numbers in El Niño, but with a hard edge, honed with anger as much as sorrow. The chorus joins the solo soprano towards the end of the number, with the insistence “We remember… we must remember.”

Another percussively punctuated choral chant frames this lament. Adams then draws upon another responsive poem by Sor Juana, “Pues está tiritando” (Since Love Is Shivering), for a response to the horror. Here conviction grows with strength and climactic purpose.

Then, as a gentle benediction, come two apocryphal tales set as travel encounters on the road to Egypt. In the first, the soprano and countertenors tell us about the child Jesus staring down dragons. In the second, the mezzo, baritone, and countertenors relate the story of Jesus bidding a palm tree to bend down so that Mary might gather its fruit.

Into this final tale, Adams inserts the final Castellanos poem, “Una palmera” (A Palm Tree), set for children’s chorus and guitars. Here is perhaps the only musical echo of Latin America, in a lilting, sweetly harmonized song. Near the end of L’enfance du Christ, Berlioz inserts a bit of domestic chamber music for flutes and harp, “a naive and gentle kind of music” in a texture very much like this chorus.

This monumental work ends quietly, with the children’s voices and guitar. In tender wonder, the last, lingering word of this textually rich piece is “poem.”

John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.