Traditions rate high this time of year, with few exceptions (other than fruitcake). But if you are going to step out of your musical comfort zone this holiday season, a good place to land would be John Adams. His nativity oratorio El Nino – which celebrates not just the miracle of Christ's birth, but the miracle of birth, period – has its Canadian premiere in Vancouver on Saturday, 12 years to the day after it was first performed publicly.
The Vancouver Bach Choir calls the work a "modern-day Messiah," but unlike Handel's masterpiece, El Nino concerns itself with Christ's birth and early life only. The libretto is a powerful mixture of biblical stories and contemporary poetry, with works by such Latin American poets as Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz and Rosario Castellanos – giving women a prominent voice in this birth story. The text, compiled by Adams and long-time collaborator Peter Sellars, also includes passages from the bible-based Wakefield Mystery Plays and a choral setting of Hildegard von Bingen's O quam preciosa.
"You might get something from the Book of Isaiah," says Leslie Dala, music director of the Vancouver Bach Choir, who will conduct. "And the very next [movement], you'll get this Latin American poem from the 20th century about the wonder of birth and the closeness of a mother to her child."
Musically, the oratorio is classic Adams: "Kaleidoscopic" is how Dala describes it. Pulsating chords and repetition, pounding percussion, at times a cacophony or wall of sound, and at other times very gentle – with influences that range from medieval to rock. With its complexities, including frequent changes in metre and, to a lesser extent, tempo, it can be challenging for Adams neophytes to perform.
"We cannot approximate anything in this piece or it will become unglued," Dala told his choristers during a rehearsal this week, as they worked their way through the movement The Christmas Star and he kept time using a metronome app on his iPhone. (How's that for a contemporary take on a classic?)
Featured soloists include counter-tenors Daniel Bubeck, Steven Rickards and Brian Cummings and soprano Jessica Rivera, who have performed the work together in several productions.
"I haven't had a whole lot of experiences in my life where I thought, 'I have to sing that, I have to do that,'" says Rivera, of the first time she heard the work, six years ago in her hometown of Los Angeles. "I thought it was amazing how he could [create] this new musical version of this story that's been told time and time again, and make it new."
Rivera, who is now probably the soprano most associated with Adams's music (she recounts how he wrote the opera A Flowering Tree specifically for her voice), is particularly moved by a moment toward the end of Shake the Heavens, when the chorus sings "I will fill this house with glory."
"It captures divinity in such a unique and visceral way," she said during an interview from Ohio.
The performance will also feature two Canadian soloists: mezzo soprano Krisztina Szabo and baritone Gregory Dahl.
El Nino had its premiere in Paris, conducted by Kent Nagano, now music director with Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (in addition to other positions he holds). Nagano was also on the podium for the North American premiere of El Nino in San Francisco a few weeks later, in January, 2001, which earned raves.
Montreal may have seemed a natural for the Canadian premiere, but to Dala's delight, the Vancouver Bach Choir was able to secure it. Dala is also associate conductor and chorus director with the Vancouver Opera Orchestra and was preparing for VO's Canadian premiere of Nixon in China (also an Adams opera) when he won the position with the Bach Choir. At his first meeting with management and the board, he advocated for the Adams oratorio. They were immediately on board. "We thought it would be a really great thing to do," he recalls, "to kind of mix up standard Messiah programming."
It took two years to seal the deal; because it would be a Canadian premiere, Adams had to sign off on it, and that took time. (Dala speculates that Adams wanted Nagano to have the Canadian premiere. Nagano was not available for an interview this week.) The Bach Choir finally received approval this past spring – a few weeks before Adams premiered his modern-day passion oratorio, The Gospel According to the Other Mary.
It was a huge relief, but Dala's excitement has not translated to the box office – not immediately, anyway. "Tickets are moving extremely slowly, which I find terrifying," Dala said over coffee last week.
This may not just be because it's a new, unfamiliar work: After three decades, the Vancouver Bach Choir's Sing-Along Messiah was dropped for this year, because it had become a money loser. "With ballet companies, you hear this all the time: The Nutcracker is the money maker that makes it possible to do everything else," Dala said. "The Messiah should be the same thing for choral organizations. But in this town, it's not."
By rehearsal night, ticket sales had picked up, but still not much more than a quarter of the Orpheum's seats had been spoken for. For anyone excited about new work, a contemporary take on the choral tradition, it's really a shame.
"It's such an extraordinary work, and I'm so excited that we are doing the premiere," Dala said. "I just hope it doesn't happen in an empty house."
El Nino will be performed at the Orpheum Theatre Saturday
at 8 p.m.