There is nothing lowly, meek or mild about Richard Mills' Christmas oratorio, Nativity, commissioned and premiered by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra on Thursday evening. Conducted by Mills, the 70-minute-long piece (and the only work performed in the concert) is gargantuan in the truest sense of the word in nearly every perceivable way. Joining forces with the ASO were soloists Desiree Frahn, Andrew Goodwin and Joshua Rowe, narrator Durkhanai Ayubi, as well as the en masse choir consisting of the Adelaide Chamber Singers, Graduate Singers and Young Adelaide Voices, all finally joined by the SA Youth Handbell Ensemble, totalling 160 performers on the heaving Adelaide Town Hall stage.
In a brief opening address by the ASO's Managing Director, Vincent Ciccarello, he commented on the relative dearth of Festive Season-themed orchestral repertoire, leaving most orchestras in the position of having to programme Handel's Messiah once every 2-3 years, and making do with tried-and-true arrangements of Christmas carols in the interim. Such was the genesis of this commission — that Richard Mills AM would compose a fresh oratorio, in the tradition of the much-beloved and ubiquitous classic, but with a distinctly Australian bent. What Mills has created, despite any one person's connection to the piece itself, is a work of inarguably impressive scale and contrast, more than fulfilling the brief, and then some.
Nativity is composed in three sections. "Part I - Prologue" is the most traditional in both text and aesthetic, setting excerpts of the Christmas story as told in Luke's gospel, interspersed with prophetic Old Testament writings telling of Jesus' coming, and finishing with a stunningly reharmonised arrangement of Once in Royal David's City, my personal highlight of the entire piece. "Part II", the most musically challenging portion of the work, takes a sharp left turn, diverging from the biblical texts and instead turning its attention to a lens of childlike innocence in the Middle East and the plight of indigenous mothers. A parade of handbells herald the segue into "Part III", commencing with Tennyson's poem In Memoriam A. H. H. and, cementing it as the most contemplative and hopeful of the three sections, gradually winding down to its conclusion with an introspective setting of Silent Night (replete with an agonisingly loud dropped cup in the audience during the final seconds of this premiere performance).
Mileage will vary in terms of the effectiveness of setting such diverse texts depending on one's willingness to actively engage in the interpretation of their relevance to each other. Nativity asks a lot of its listeners by requiring three mindsets — yes, one to simply bask in adoration of its beautiful, sumptuous moments, but also one of appreciation for the technical and ensemble skills required of the performers in the more demanding passages and one of lateral thinking to link thematically and culturally adjacent writings across the expanse of thousands of years. I cannot imagine experiencing Nativity being consistently rewarding for an audience member only willing to engage as the former.
"Part II" is particularly hard work (dear reader, do not hear this as an inherently negative criticism — art can and should challenge) with its unconventional lyrics and dissonant, aleatoric soundscape. At times, it appears self-aware of its status as The Contrasting B-Section, an almost contractual departure from the warm embrace of "Part I - Prologue" and intentional precursor to the conclusion, which, by its very nature, can only be heard as a balm by comparison. This central segment almost acts as a microcosm of the entire work — a swirling mass of programmatic, literal underscore, vivid representation of recognisable real-life sounds and a musical aesthetic that's abstract enough for each audience member to hear a different story. Just be prepared for the whiplash you might experience trying to juggle your comprehension of all three.
The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra were in typically fine form, deftly navigating the demands of the various atmospheres required. One had to question whether the sheer scale of orchestration was completely justified, as a detailed scan of the onstage artists, when coupled with a glance at the performer list, indicated that some of the finer details simply weren't making their way to the audience's ears. The combined choirs sounded sublime, but also fell victim to the periodically futile task of being heard over the immense orchestral forces — Mills valiantly spent a great deal of physical energy trying to control the balance as much as any other aspect. The vocal soloists sounded gorgeous — Desiree Frahn made short work of her stratospheric arias, Andrew Goodwin's caramel tenor gave the piece a distinctly warm colour and Joshua Rowe's sonorous bass and crystal-clear diction communicated every possible nuance of the diverse texts. While I wasn't personally convinced about the inclusion of the narration device as a whole, Durkhanai Ayubi spoke authoritatively and followed Mills' cues with military precision.
Nativity is a work to be experienced and digested in real time rather than passively heard. For this reason, it is unlikely to become a household staple of Christmas-time ambience, but it's doubtful this was ever the intention. The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra is to be commended on their commissioning of this bold, new Australian work — may this be a foreshadowing of a new approach to programming in the future. The standing ovation was proof if proof were needed that Adelaide audiences can handle (pun intended) new things.
Nativity was performed in the Adelaide Town Hall on December 9-10, 2021.