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John Adams’ ‘Gospel’ set for Midwest premiere at Ravinia

John Adams' 'The Gospel According Other Mary' is considered one his most ambitious daring works date.

John Adams' "The Gospel According to the Other Mary" is considered one of his most ambitious and daring works to date.

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‘The Gospel According To The Other Mary,’ 7:30 p.m. Sept. 7, Ravinia Festival, 200 Ravinia Park Road, Highland Park. $10-$25. (847) 266-5100;

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The Los Angeles Philharmonic expected something 90 minutes long or so when it asked John Adams to write a companion piece to his 1999-2000 nativity oratorio, “El Nino.” Instead, what the orchestra got was not only much longer, but it was also one of the San Francisco Bay area-composer’s most daring and ambitious works ever.

Following its May 2012 debut and 11 subsequent staged and unstaged performances (all but one by the Philharmonic at home and on tour), the three-hour oratorio, “The Gospel According to the Other Mary,” will receive its Midwest premiere Sept. 7 at the Ravinia Festival.

It is the kind of big, stand-out undertaking that the festival likes to present once each summer ­— if president and chief executive officer Welz Kauffman can find a suitable fit. “I do have it in my mind that doing it once a summer would be good,” he said, “but if I can’t find the right project, then we don’t do anything.”

“The Gospel” has everything Kauffman was looking for: newness, scale and the cachet of having been written by Adams, whom many experts consider to be this country’s most important living composer. His 1985-87 opera “Nixon in China” has become a regularly revived 20th-century staple.

At Ravinia, the Chicago Philharmonic will perform, but the rest of the participants will be the same as at the premiere and last March’s staged version in Los Angeles. They include the Los Angeles Master Chorale and mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor as Mary, mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford as Martha and tenor Russell Thomas as Lazarus.

Conducting will be Grant Gershon, the Master Chorale’s music director. He led of one the March performances when conductor Gustavo Dudamel was called away to take part in the funeral for Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.

Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, believes “The Gospel” contains some of the “strongest, most impassioned music” of the composer’s career. “Above all,” he has written, “it is a work of daring: a popular, celebrated artist has set aside familiar devices and stepped into the unknown.”

Taking that step is exactly what Adams wanted to do when he undertook his seventh stage work — a process he said never gets any easier.

“A lot of artists,” he said, “do that: They brand themselves, so the audience thinks they know what they’re getting, and I completely don’t want to do that. I want each piece of mine to be a complete departure or, if not complete, at least a challenge for myself and a move into the future.”

Adams created “The Gospel” with famed stage director Peter Sellars, with whom he has collaborated on “Nixon in China” and several other projects. Sellars assembled a libretto that depicts the last days of Christ from the point of view of Martha, Lazarus and Mary Magdalene (the oratorio’s namesake).

In one of the work’s most startling departures, passages from the Old and New Testaments are juxtaposed with poems by Rosario Castellanos, Ruben Dario and others, as well as the writings of Catholic activist Dorothy Day.

In addition to a standard chamber orchestra, the score calls for a range of percussion and, providing a dash of exoticism, the cimbalom — a hammered dulcimer that is associated with folk music from Central Europe.

Ross calls “The Gospel” a “huge, strange, turbulent” creation that takes the composer back to his avant-garde roots.

“I think there is a dramatic intensity to this piece that really doesn’t exist in any of my other pieces,” Adams said. “The only other piece I can think of that comes close to that is ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ (1990-91). But even ‘Klinghoffer’ doesn’t have the fury and searing intensity of this one.”

After the work’s first performance, Adams cut about 10 minutes from the score, and it is that slightly shortened version that will be heard at Ravina.

“There were some passages that were just dramatically slack,” he said. “I didn’t write any new music, but I tightened it up and I tweaked some of the orchestration, which, of course, I always do with a piece after I hear it for the first time. It’s just part of the creative process.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local free-lance writer.

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