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Mostly Mozart Festival features enchanting John Adams opera
14 Aug 2009
Clef Notes and Drama Queens
Please forgive the slow-down in blogging. I've zipped up to New York for the annual meeting of the Music Critics Association of North America. Had to -- I'm still president of our little brood (for two more days). I'll post whenever I can.

John AdamsThe association chose to gather in New York this year partly because it afforded an opportunity to check out the long-running Mostly Mozart Festival presented by Lincoln Center. There wasn't a note of Mozart Thursday night, but his spirit was conjured up by the NY premiere of The Flowering Tree, an opera by John Adams inspired by The Magic Flute, though based on a 2,000-year old South Indian folk tale.

One of the cool things about Mostly Mozart is that the programming has opened up considerably over its four-decade-plus existence, offering diverse fare from a variety of genres and eras. The Adams work, given in the inviting Rose Theater in the Time-Warner building at Columbus Circle, provided a refreshing experience on several levels. The story, adapted by Adams and his frequent collaborator, director Peter Sellars, explores ...

myth and symbol, with a degree of conflict and self-discovery not unlike that in Mozart's Flute, I suppose. 

Kumudha, a poor young woman, is transformed by a ritual ceremony into a flowering tree, and is thus able to produce blossoms that she and her sister can sell in the market; a prince sees this transformation and, fascinated, marries the woman; the prince's jealous sister causes the Kumudha to be mutilated and caught in a state between human and arboreal form; the prince searches in despair for his wife, who, when found, is able to be her self again.

The story has been stripped down to its essentials, with just three solo singers -- Kumudha, the prince and a storyteller. Three dancers interpret the action; a chorus is deeply involved as well.

Adams brings all of these forces into a musical symmetry that can be really quite stunning at times. From the first shimmering orchestral notes to the final burst of radiance, the score reveals layers of intricate nuance. The vocal writing has an often exquisite clarity that recalls Britten's sensitivity to text. This may not rank ultimately as high as other Adams operas, but The Flowering Tree has a poetic, exotic beauty that is strongly appealing and involving.

It couldn't get a more committed or expressive performance than the one here, conducted by the composer and featuring the sterling contributions of Jessica Rivera (Kumudha), Russell Thomas (Prince) and Sanford Sylvan (Storyteller). The demanding choral writing was delivered with terrific flair by the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela (Adams set the choral lines in Spanish, the rest in English -- an oddly satisfying arrangement). And the Orchestra of St. Luke's produced a rich array of tone colors. Sellars had the action unfolding tellingly on a bare platform, achieving especially compelling results in the way he had the Indonesian dancers subtly intertwined with the singers.

For two hours, the opera cast a remarkably strong spell.

BALTIMORE SUN STAFF PHOTO

Radio

Golijov: Ainadamar
Poulenc: Gloria in G major
Spohr: Songs (6), Op. 103
Salazar: Canciones Mexicanas (3)
Adams: A Flowering Tree
Golijov: La pasión según San Marcos
Vaughan Williams: Serenade to Music
Barber: Knoxville, Summer of 1915, Op. 24
Górecki: Symphony no 3, Op. 36 "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs"
Mompou: Combat del somni
Theofanidis: Creation/Creator
Vaughan Williams: Dona nobis pacem
Spano: Hölderlin-Lieder: No. 1, Lebenslauf

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