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Hear John Luther Adams' plaintive 'Vespers of the Blessed Earth,' in its momentous world premiere

Composer John Luther Adams, with soprano Meigui Zhang and members The Philadelphia Orchestra, at the world premiere of his 'Vespers of the Blessed Earth,' spring 2023.
Margo Reed
John Luther Adams, with soprano Meigui Zhang and The Philadelphia Orchestra, at the premiere of his 'Vespers of the Blessed Earth.'

Join us on Sunday, Nov. 12 at 1 p.m. on WRTI 90.1 and Monday, Nov. 13 at 7 p.m. on WRTI HD-2 as The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert brings you music inspired by the natural world, with some impressive debuts as well.

This encore presentation features several firsts. Not only is Vespers of the Blessed Earth a world premiere; not only is the celebrated chamber choir The Crossing making its debut with The Philadelphia Orchestra. Those firsts were planned long ago.

But the indisposition of music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who was to have conducted, resulted in two more unexpected and impressive debuts. Donald Nally leads The Philadelphia Orchestra for the first time in the Adams premiere. And Austin Chanu, the Orchestra’s conducting fellow, was tapped to lead The Rite of Spring in his subscription concert debut. The result was a concert marked by intense anticipation, drama, and excitement.

Donald Nally conducts The Philadelphia Orchestra and The Crossing in the premiere of John Luther Adams' 'Vespers of the Blessed Earth' at the Kimmel Cultural Campus in the spring of 2023.
Margo Reed
Donald Nally conducts The Philadelphia Orchestra and The Crossing in the premiere of John Luther Adams' 'Vespers of the Blessed Earth' at the Kimmel Cultural Campus in the spring of 2023.

Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring famously caused a riot at its premiere in 1913. Perhaps it was his innovative, complex music that shocked the audience; or the daring, even scandalous choreography; or the brutal scenario of human sacrifice to propitiate the god of spring. Or all three. It hardly matters: The Rite of Spring became an instant legend. There are two sections. In the first, an ancient pagan tribe celebrates the glories of spring through ritual dances. In the second, a chosen maiden gradually emerges for the climactic sacrifice. Conducting fellow Austin Chanu, who has long loved this score, made his subscription debut with The Philadelphia Orchestra leading a work he had never before conducted — on one rehearsal. The performance is electrifying, and the audience reception is overwhelming.

Conductor Austin Chanu's full circle moment with the Rite of Spring

The Rite of Spring is an apt pairing with the world premiere on this program: Vespers of the Blessed Earth, by John Luther Adams. This unique composer has long pursued environmental issues, and the natural world is a constant theme in his music. The title of his new work makes a deliberate reference to the sacred services of evening prayers in the Roman Catholic tradition. But Adams’s prayers are not religious in the traditional sense. These five movements are prayers for the Earth itself.

The first is titled “A Brief Descent Into Deep Time.” Adams describes it as a journey across “two billion years of deep time through singing the names, colors, and ages of the geologic layers of the Grand Canyon.” In the second movement, “A Weeping of Doves,” the choir sings alone, imitating the call of the beautiful fruit dove, a brightly colored bird native to the rainforests of Papua New Guinea. The third movement is “Night-Shining Clouds.” Adams writes of his inspiration: “Sometimes, on summer evenings, bright clouds appear on the northern horizon, pulsing with color as if illuminated from within. As humans pollute the atmosphere more and more,” he adds, these clouds “have become more widespread, as the earth just grows more beautiful.”

Adams calls the fourth movement, “Litanies of the Sixth Extinction,” the “heart” of his Vespers. The chorus recounts the scientific names of 193 threatened and endangered species of plants and animals, ending ominously with “Homo sapiens” — humanity itself. The concluding movement introduces a solo soprano. Again Adams draws on birdsong, inspired by a 1987 recording of the mating call of the last-surviving Kauaʻi ʻōʻō bird — a mating call which is never answered. The soloist intones a sustained musical evocation of that bird’s call before the work ends, hauntingly, with a flute playing that final, unanswered mating call.

Donald Nally on preparing The Crossing -- and the audience -- for the latest John Luther Adams premiere


Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

J. L. Adams: Vespers of the Blessed Earth

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Austin Chanu, conductor

Donald Nally, conductor

Meigui Zhang, soprano


Melinda Whiting: Host

Alex Ariff: Senior Producer

Susan Lewis: Consulting Producer

Joseph Patti: Broadcast Engineer

Listen to The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert broadcasts every Sunday at 1 p.m. on WRTI 90.1, streaming at WRTI.org, on the WRTI mobile app, and on your smart speaker. Listen again on Mondays at 7 p.m. on WRTI HD-2. Listen for up to two weeks after broadcast on WRTI Replay, accessible from the WRTI homepage (look for Listen to The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert On Demand).

Melinda has worked in radio for decades, hosting and producing classical music and arts news. An award-winning broadcaster, she has created and hosted classical music programs and reported for NPR, WQXR—New York, WHYY–Philadelphia, and American Public Media. WRTI listeners may remember her years hosting classical music for WFLN and WHYY.