Christmas Cheer in Classical Music

I love Christmas. For me it is a season of hope and joy, and although there may be lots of reasons to not be cheerful this year (what with the economy, constant war and strife around the world...) the message of Christmas is one of hope. So, when I think of Christmas music I tend to turn to pieces like Vivaldi's Gloria or Corelli's Concerto grosso in G minor (Christmas Concerto). These are (IMHO) the epitomi of hope and joy and it is impossible (for me) to listen to the music and not smile from ear to ear.

I am also a fan of John Adams, with a healthy respect for his music from his Violin Concerto to Doctor Atomic. However...

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra will present Adams's "El Niño (A Nativity Oratorio)" on the 13th & 14th of December. Not knowing this piece I went to have a listen (compliments of Amazon). The initial piece I sing of a Maiden has some really interesting rhythms, and very much in the Adam's minimalist style. As the oratorio progressed I felt a theme creeping in, or perhaps, just 3 notes, over and over and OVER again. I do not have a score, so I can only rely on my ear, but from that vantage point (which is the vantage point I believe all music should be understood), these three notes become a monotony, a drone and anything but joyful. By the end I felt as if any hope had been sucked out of me and I was left numb. This is not the feeling I expected (or wanted) from a Christmas oratorio.

In the review by Allan Ulrich, San Francisco's Chronicle Music Critic based on the January 2001 performance, he mentions, "What is good about 'El Nino' is haunting." Good description of it (although I should point out, Ulrich very much enjoyed this aspect of the music and the review is very favorable). Mark Swed, the New York Times Critic said of the same performance, "there is also a musical freshness to 'El Niño'--its tunes are catchier, its rhythms spikier, its exuberance more thrilling, its complexities more integrated than anything that has preceded it." I can't say as I felt that. The rhythms are wonderful and musically there is a great deal of passion, but again, not the type I would expect from the Christmas story.

Both of these reviews and several other glowing ones can be found in an archive here. Perhaps if they're archived together I might expect them all to be favorable (and they are). One last comment by Georgia Rowe continues the praise with "perhaps that's the whole point of 'El Niño.' In the 21st century, Adams seems to suggest, miracles may happen where we least expect them." Maybe I missed the miracle, maybe, only getting a few samples of the music rather than listening to the entire piece.

Should I get the chance to see a performance of 'El Niño' in the future I will go. John Adams is a major composer worth giving more than a passing glance at his music and the effect of the performance. However, on first listening, it wasn't the Christmas spirit I heard.


Roger said…
I heard the piece live, complete with Peter Sellers home videos. I really wanted to like it, wanted it to be the new Messiah, but it didn't happen. The piece is in the family of late Stravinsky's choral music: compositions for composers, not normal folk....

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