John Luther Adams  “Vespers of the Blessed Earth”

Philadelphia Orchestra with The Crossing

Written by:
Lewis Whittington
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The Philadelphia Orchestra and The Crossing premiered composer John Luther Adams  “Vespers of the Blessed Earth” to an almost full Verizon Hall on March 30. The piece commissioned by the orchestra debuting on a program with Igor Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ decidedly vastly different orchestral works, but both with very earthy themes- ‘Sacre’ a retelling of a Russian folktale about a virgin sacrifice for a season’s earthly bounty; ‘Vespers’ prayers contemplating the survival of earthy inhabitants.

A day before the premiere, Philadelphia Orchestra Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin had to bow out of the performances, both in Philadelphia and at Carnegie Hall the following evening. But The Crossing musical director Donald Nally was on the podium for ‘Vespers’ and Baltimore Symphony conductor Emeritus Marin Alsop stepped in for what proved to be an electrifying performance of Stravinsky’s ballet score. .

Charlotte Blake Alston, the orchestra’s narrator, read Adams’ sobering preamble to ‘Vespers’
About the global threats to the environment. The 32 choristers were positioned in the choir loft over the orchestra members.

Adams noted that composer Claudio Monteverdi’s “Vespers of the Blessed Virgin” inspired him. An oratorial and orchestral work composed in 1610. But for all intents, Adams’ five movement ‘Vespers’ is unmoored from any conventional structure. .

It opens with the slow moving choral and orchestral meditation ‘A Descent into Deep Time’ with the Crossing vocalese of the elements, the geologic history preserved in the firmament of the Grand Canyon. Their voices, breaths, and timeless chimes at intervals and the names of the sediments, minerals, rocks, and earth’s layers
‘Litanies of the Sixth Extinction’ an oratorial indexing of 193 threatened and endangered species, ending stoically with The Crossing versifying the list of given Latin genus, which are scrolled simultaneously on the supertitle screen. And ending stoically with the species homo sapiens

‘Night Shining Clouds’ are conjured by Adams’ whispering symphonia. Clouds Adams’ notes the program, which appear even more beautiful to the human eye becomes of pollution. Such phenomena expressed in the compelling striations of the Philadelphia Orchestra strings.

‘The Cries of the Doves’ The Crossing female chorale singing a cappella, in staccato riffs
Adams’ rendering the patterns of the language of the doves cryptic communiques flight signals, survival tactics, food routes, coming unavoidable storms.

The stunning movement titled ‘Litanies of the Sixth Extinction’ a chorale that indexes vanished or threatened species due to pollution and climate change, the last on Adams’ list being homo sapiens. And the arresting final movement ‘Aria of the Ghost Bird’ A haunting solo of silvery scales sung with haunted intensity by Soprano Meigui Zhang who stepped in for Ying Fang, who bowed out due to illness.

Throughout Adams’ slow moving, lush symphonic minimalism, sans pastoral or oceanic cliches. The atmospherics are deliberately static for long passages. The asymmetrical chimes are ominous as they are lyrical. The effects are meditative, suggesting seed sounds of the universe.

Philadelphia Orchestra audiences are concerts routinely give standing ovations, but this was a slow rise of an almost full house, but just as many people remained seated, indicating that it didn’t connect with everyone, but when Adams took a bow it was obvious that many in the audience embraced his ‘Vespers’ for its artistic purpose.

Conductor Marin Alsop bounded to the podium and from the opening bars unleashed the power of
Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” with such authenticity that you could easily
Envision the semi-riot that Nijinsky’s choreography caused at its premiere in 1913.

In contrast to ‘Vespers’ it has concussive theatricality, from its atmospherics conjured in the opening movement (The Adoration) by the strings and Daniel Matsukawa snaking  bassoon lead and the feral flights of the reeds detailing all of Stravinsky’s orchestral paganism. The horns and percussion framing
Among the many outstanding soloists included David Kim (violin), Kristen Johnson & C.J.Chang (violists), Jeffrey Khaner (flute), Jennifer Montone (French Horn), Don Liuzzi (percussion).

Alsop’s robust conducting style is precise and joyous as she summons ‘Sacre’s orchestral tornados, the razor-sharp arrests, the earthquaking sonics in the denouement, Marin and this orchestra delivered a defining performance of this groundbreaking ballet score that ignited a riot in 1913 and 110 years later it can still knock you out of your seat with Marin Alsop on the podium. .

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