A Deeply Affecting Performance of Lagrime di San Pietro by the Los Angeles Master Chorale

United StatesUnited States Orlando di Lasso: Lagrime di San Pietro, Los Angeles Master Chorale/Grant Gershon (conductor), Peter Sellars (director), James F. Ingalls (lighting director), Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, 29.10.2016. (DD)

A concert event consisting solely of the music of this High Renaissance composer (known too as Roland de Lassus and Orlande de Lassus) is a rare and esoteric event indeed. Generally, performances of his music are confined to specialist concert sites and venues—universities, museums, period-appropriate churches, early music festivals—and feature the names of other revered but lesser-known composers like Perotin, Leonin, Dufay, Binchois, or Hildegard von Bingen.

When a group endowed with the pliable skill of the Los Angeles Master Chorale is singing Lasso’s music in the well-known Walt Disney Concert Hall, the event should at least give one pause to consider it, and the Chorale, an ensemble known for its remarkably flexibility, did not disappoint. Resident conductor Grant Gershon has consistently followed a performance path of concert versatility rather than specialization, and his ensemble moves easily and comfortably from era to era, style to style.

Lagrime di San Pietro is Lasso’s final masterpiece, completed weeks before his death in 1594. In addition to the musical portion, this performance was enhanced with careful and considered staging by the alternately fêted and reviled Peter Sellars. Once considered something of a ‘bad boy’ in the music world, Sellars, now nearing iconic status in the somewhat insular sphere of music drama, has created a world in which both movement and suspended movement lent attention and focus to the sound and word drama of the piece.

Throughout the 21 sections of this tightly constructed, unaccompanied choral masterpiece (20 motets with a single concluding madrigal that takes your breath away), the assured hand of the composer avoids resolutions, and surprises one with sometimes direct, sometimes serpentine harmonic paths, in a text that asks for the ascription of guilt, the need for repentance, and the gift of forgiveness. The voice moves from an unnamed narrator to that of Peter, the three-fold betrayer (through denial), and of Christ. It becomes a kind of psychodrama, surely as inner-voiced a tale as any work by Joyce or Dostoyevsky. Or Kafka.

Each passage of the initial 20 stanzas shifts seamlessly from dramatic voice to voice. The fifteenth motet, ‘Vattene vita va’ (‘Go, life, go away’), was the emotional low point for Peter but a high point musically. The text wrestles with piercing modal counterpoint, shifting tonal centers, and jagged dissonances that resolve only tentatively until the end of the motet. The wrenching desire for release from life by Peter, stated in his confession, easily ranks among the lowest depths of the human condition made manifest in sound.

The Master Chorale, three voices per part and singing the score from memory, communicated the sorrow and the pity of Peter’s place with precision, balance, and deeply felt emotion. The drama was underscored with skillfully choreographed movement; even conductor Gershon shifted his own physical placement throughout the performance. The Chorale’s movements mirrored Peter’s feelings: guilt, despair, deceit, fear. The relentless sadness of his story is made even worst with Jesus’ holy imprecation, ‘See, O man, what things I endure for you, to you I cry, I who am dying for you… And though the outward suffering be so great, Yet is the inward suffering heavier still, When I find you to be so ungrateful’.

Oh my.

Would the performance have been equally affective without the dramatic choreography? Possibly, but the understated qualities of the movement and the long pregnant pauses between sections (Sellars’ stated intention of ‘visualizing the polyphony’) added to the experience. At no time did one have a sense of the ‘look at me’ qualities that characterize many such musical experiences; Sellars’ dramatic gestures were beautiful to watch and merged into the music and text in ways both clear and unexpected.

The great French Renaissance poet Pierre de Ronsard famously called Orlando di Lasso ‘the more than divine Orlando, who like a bee has sipped all the most beautiful flowers of the ancients and moreover seems alone to have stolen the harmony of the heavens to delight it with us on earth, surpassing the ancients and making himself the unique wonder of our time’. Ronsard elegantly summarizes the singularity of the Lasso experience: it is a creation simultaneously of its time and timeless. Though Lasso’s music has, for many, passed into the realm of ‘the Ancients’, the immediacy of the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s performance, enhanced by the subtle staging of Peter Sellars, made this a uniquely poignant and memorable experience.

Douglas Dutton

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