Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

Witty and pertinent observations on matters of great significance OR Incoherent jottings on total irrelevancies OR Something else altogether OR All of the above

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Edinburgh International Festival Opening Concert: El Niño, Usher Hall, 13 August 2010

I'd better start on my festival reviews before I get so far behind I become overwhelmed (I still have much of last year's festival remaining unreviewed, and the pile of programmes and handwritten notes stares at me reproachfully when I dust it).

So, last Friday the official festival kicked off with the BBS Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Conlon, doing El Niño by John Adams. This is an oratorio about the nativity, inspired by Handel's Messiah not just in its subject matter but in the fact that the soloists are not tied to singing the same character all the way through. El Niño includes material from both the Old and New Testaments, as well as from some apocryphal New Testament writings (Gospel of James, Gospel of pseudo-Matthew). It also sets texts by Hildegard of Bingen and a number of oter female poets - for this is a nativity definitely as seen from a female perspective, and contrasts the human physical experience of childbirth with the mystical birth of Christ. The first half of the piece takes us up to the birth, while the second deals with the Magi and the massacre of the innocents, which in this instance is underlined by a setting of Rosario de Castellanos's poem Memorial de Tlatelolco, which commemorates the massacre of several hundred students at a political demonstration in Mexico in 1968 (yes, not long after the Olympics) and the way it was more or less totally covered up. I certainly was unaware of it. Both the poem and the music are exceptionally powerful, which could be said of much of the piece.

The music is both much more varied and more moving than I had anticipated: I've seen three Adams stage works but here there was no production to distract attention from the music in the way that Nixon In China's onstage Airforce One, Klinghoffer's ship or Ceiling/Sky's sets by renowned graffiti artists did. I think it was The babe leaped in her womb which made great use of a gamelan, non-western tuning and all, while the final Una palmera, sung by a chorus of young girls, was utterly charming and exceptionally beautiful. There were six vocal soloists: Jessica Rivera (sop), Kelley O'Connor (mezzo), Willard White (bass-bar), and a trio of counter-tenors Robin Blaze, Paul Flight and William Purefoy. All were very fine indeed, as were the Festival Chours and the NYCS National Girls' Choir. The BBCSSO played their hearts out, fielding fewer strings than usual to reduce the density of the textures: and special mention to their two keyboard players (sharing three keyboards) who were kept very busy.

A splendid opening night, and sold out - as it should be.

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