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SLSO's El Nino showed how art - and St. Louis - can still surprise

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 15, 2008 - In a holiday season that has inspired some of the world's greatest music, the St. Louis Symphony took a chance last weekend on John Adams' Christmas oratorio, El Nino. Or maybe the orchestra took a chance on us, the audience, and how we would react. Judging from the repeated curtain calls Saturday night, we, and they, exceeded expectations.
El Nino turned out to be the best kind of gift – great art, meaning the kind that somehow changes your perception of the world, plus a timely reminder that we have much to be grateful for close to home. St. Louis, despite our congenital self-deprecation, frequently proves to be an extraordinary and surprising place.

John Adams' work is no stranger here. If you heard the first throbbing chords of Harmonielehre at a previous SLSO concert, you will remember them. Or Opera Theatre's version of Nixon in China. The stilted waltz by President Nixon said most of what you need to know about that tortured historical figure's psyche.

The composer seems to be a favorite of SLSO conductor David Robertson, who last year programmed a premier here of the symphonic version of Adams' opera Doctor Atomic.  This year, Robertson began the concert season with Adams' Guide to Strange Places. Robertson also has used the Pulitzer Foundation concert series to showcase Shaker Loops and Hallelujah Junction, two of Adams' infectiously energetic works.

These exclusively modern Pulitzer concerts thrive in a town that can't sustain a traditional chamber music series, except for performances by the admirable Arianna Quartet. Getting back to the original point, St. Louis is not nearly as stodgy as we say it is, and I'm grateful for that.

In Robertson's hands, Adams' music has become one of my favorites. The rhythmic momentum is so energizing that I once programmed a playlist of mostly Adams pieces to carry me through the St. Louis Half Marathon. It worked so well that I finished before the music did, missing the bombastic Short Ride in a Fast Machine. If you think modern music is no fun, listen to that.

Given this backdrop, I approached El Nino with high expectations - not to mention the inevitable comparison any Christmas work will face to the seasonal masterpieces, Handel's Messiah and Bach's Christmas Oratorio. They stand the test of exposure that measures all great art works - the more time you spend with them, the more they reveal.

Here's what I found in El Nino Saturday night:

It's a grand work that combines Biblical texts and other religious writings with a huge chorus, children's choir, guitars, bells and other assorted effects in the orchestra. This is music you want to hear in person because it will never fully translate to a recording.

El Nino sometimes takes an alternative and enlightening perspective on the Christmas story – more attention to Mary's point of view, for example.

Herod's order to kill Jewish children becomes more than a sidelight to Jesus' story. In El Nino, it's a major theme and precursor to modern genocide and the fate of the disappeared in Latin America.

The tumult, and the piece, end gently in a surprisingly sweet duet between the children's choir and guitars.

And so, Robertson and Adams delivered yet another satisfying surprise to St. Louis.

A few months ago, a friend who is an opera buff was visiting from Los Angeles. It happened that a big star, Susan Graham, was performing here that very day. My friend had made elaborate arrangements to see her in New York, but here we bought tickets at the last minute. After intermission, we were surprised to see Graham take a seat near us in the balcony to hear the rest of the program.

A last-minute ticket to a memorable performance may not be possible in New York or Los Angeles. But, surprise, it happens here, along with great art that conveys something fundamental about who we are. Holiday thanks to David Robertson and the SLSO for making it possible.

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