Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall – Donald Nally conducts John Luther Adams’s Vespers of the Blessed Earth, and Marin Alsop leads Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring

John Luther Adams

Vespers of the Blessed Earth [New York premiere]


The Rite of Spring

Charlotte Blake Alston (speaker); Meigui Zhang (soprano); The Crossing

Philadelphia Orchestra
Donald Nally
Marin Alsop

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 31 March, 2023
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

One night after its world premiere at home in Verizon Hall, the Philadelphia Orchestra brought John Luther Adams’s timely Vespers of the Blessed Earth to Carnegie Hall. Due to Illness, Yannick Nézet-Séguin was unable to lead either performance; in his place Donald Nally, the choral group’s regular conductor, stepped in and expertly coordinated the unusual arrangement of musicians – a piano and harp in the middle of the stage, with two string-and-percussion ensembles on each side, four choruses along the back, and two ensembles of brass and woodwind each perched in the second balconies.   

Highly adept at creating immersive soundworlds, most famously Become Ocean, Adams takes a somewhat different approach in this Philadelphia Orchestra commission, which is more direct and urgently toned in its mournful five-part depiction of our planet in decline.

In Part One, “A Brief Descent into Time”, the forty choristers, in a descending cadence, chant the names, ages, and colors of different rocks in the geologic layers of the six-million-year-old Grand Canyon against a background of chimes and soft strings. The overlapping words – largely unintelligible but displayed as supertitles – conjure up a strong sense of the durability of the Earth. In Part Two, “A Weeping of Doves”, a soprano vocalizes the beautiful weeping call of a fruit dove (Ptilinopus pulchellus) found in the rainforests of Papua New Guinea – an inspiration for ritual mourning among its indigenous people – alongside gentle choral humming. The third movement, “Night-Shining Clouds”, “the heart of my vespers”, employs slow high strings, spiraling downward, to depict beautiful, brightly colored cloud formations which, paradoxically, are increasingly widespread as the atmosphere becomes more polluted. As in the rest of the piece, the descending lines conjure up feelings of austere sadness. In “Litanies of the Sixth Extinction”, the chorus recites the genus names of 193 critically threatened and endangered species of flora and fauna, ending, ominously, with homo sapiens. In the bleak concluding section, “Aria of the Ghost Bird”, the soprano’s beautiful but forlorn vocal line is an adaptation of the unrequited mating call of the now-extinct Kauai O’o bird of Hawaii. The composer’s transcription, from a 1987 recording, is heard at the end played by a piccolo perched in a balcony.

With Nally maintaining supreme control, the performers were magnificent, The singing of choir, consistently accurate and pure in sound, was thrilling and highly effective in communicating the inherent beauty and grief of the music. Megiui Zhang (replacing Ying Fang) revealed a splendid voice. The orchestra demonstrated sufficient variation in Adams’s spare but finely honed score to keep one’s attention, and there were some especially striking details.

In the second half, Marin Alsop elicited a fiery and fantastically colorful reading of The Rite of Spring. The Philadelphia musicians demonstrating strength and subtlety in the more peaceful passages. The playing of the brass and percussion was particularly high-powered to successfully capture all the wild intensity of Stravinsky’s score.

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