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BSO offers an updated Nativity tale

Holiday-themed classical concerts tend to feature Handel's "Messiah" or a few other usual suspects, but the Boston Symphony Orchestra's program last night in Symphony Hall, while being no less seasonally appropriate, was an exciting departure from the norm.

The night was given over to John Adams's modern Nativity oratorio, "El Niño," a kaleidoscopic work of sustained expressive power. David Robertson, the music director of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, was on hand to lead the BSO, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, the PALS Children's Chorus, and an excellent cast of soloists. It was a deeply satisfying performance that conveyed both the music's primal sweep and its luxurious detail.

The piece itself was in fact inspired by Handel's "Messiah," but Adams's telling of the Nativity story is a more fractured and multivalent affair. The libretto is drawn from the Bible and the Apocrypha but also from Spanish-language poetry by Rosario Castellanos, Gabriela Mistral, and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, among other sources.

The outlines of the story of course remain the same, but the poems provide a commentary that both amplifies the biblical themes but also brings out darker undercurrents. It is a work not just about collective religious memory, but also about collective amnesia; not just about the joy and miracle of human birth but also about the attendant pain and ambivalence.

"El Niño" runs about two hours and Adams's music is endlessly inventive throughout; his vocal writing is especially sumptuous. A trio of countertenors serves as a kind of Greek chorus (here they were Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, and Steven Rickards, all in fine form). Soprano Jessica Rivera and mezzo-soprano Beth Clayton both sang beautifully, and Eric Owens deployed a particularly lustrous bass.

One of the night's most memorable passages came toward the end of Part I, when Owens sang with hushed intensity over translucent orchestral chords. The chorus was also excellent. For his part, Robertson led with abundant grace and precision, and a keen feel for the propulsive rhythms that course through Adams's score.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at

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