LA Master Chorale Ends a Superb Season with a Look to the Future from a Not-So-Distant Past

United StatesUnited States Salonen, Childs, Smiley, Whitacre, Kirchner, Lauridsen: Los Angeles Master Chorale and Orchestra, Grant Gershon (conductor), Jenny Wong (assistant conductor), Eric Whitacre (guest conductor), Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, 23.6.2017. (DLD)

Salonen – ‘Iri da iri’
Childs – ‘In Gratitude’
Smiley – ‘Time in Our Voices’
Whitacre – ‘I Fall’
Kirchner (arranger) – three songs from The Sacred Harp
Morten Lauridsen Lux Aeterna

The Los Angeles Master Chorale closed its 2016-2017 season with a program of widely varied music – some traditional, some cutting edge – to an overflow audience. It was marked by compositional variety and performance pliability, and the sum of these factors was far greater than the arithmetic should allow. There’s no doubt that Director Grant Gershon provided the magic.

The concert opened with ‘Iri da iri’ by Esa-Pekka Salonen, the former Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In this beautiful setting of the closing words of Dante’s Divine Comedy (the last lines of Canto 100), Salonen resists predictable tonality, and creates a texture wherein single and multiple pedal points anchor the eerily moving upper choral lines, with one wrenching but beautiful sound cluster after another. These sonic structures score and illuminate the poet’s awe in this final vision and, ultimately, the hopelessness of his understanding; all that is left is the ‘sense of sweet that spring from it’. Both music and words lead to the realization that is the famous conclusion: ‘love impelled, that moves the sun in Heaven, and all the stars’.  Dante himself says that that what he saw was ‘not for words to speak’. If that is the case, it’s difficult to imagine a better medium that Salonen’s music: a kind of sonic spacescape, in continuous expansion and contraction, leaving scattered aural nebulae, clusters and whole galactic sound systems perceived in movement and stasis. This was original, beautiful and authentic music. May a complete musical setting of Dante’s Divine Comedy – oratorio? Passion? opera? – by Maestro Salonen be in our collective future!

Billy Child’s ‘In Gratitude’, on the other hand, is eclectic, with the music integrated into an engagingly heterogeneous work. Though the title suggests a starting point with a specific direction, the path, both textually and musically, eventually becomes evermore obscure, blurring the lines between a dissonant and consonant environment, layering cross rhythms, with harmonies that progress in their own direction . . . and ultimately lead to a kind of harmonic truce. It graphs the progression from love to pain, and resolves with the gratitude promised in the title.

The world premiere of Moira Smiley’s ‘Time in Our Voices’, led by Master Chorale assistant conductor Jenny Wong, continued the concert’s amiable eclecticism with an immediately accessible assemblage. In addition to the Master Chorale’s quirky multiple vocalizations, the composer had collected, in five separate movements, an assortment of telephonic interjections, fragments and conversations that grew, matured and aged with the stylish progress of the piece. To call the piece charming would not give it its due: the many charms grew, complicated, transformed and ultimately prevailed. I’d love to hear it again.

Eric Whitacre has surely emerged as a major composer in the vocal/choral world. His phrasing, harmonic structures and progressions make his sound immediately identifiable, with dissonances that suggest comfort, and harmonic consonances that are disconcerting at the least, heartbreaking at the most. ‘I Fall’, based on a poem written by the composer’s friend and collaborator Charles Anthony Silvestri, is the second part in what promises to be a much larger piece, centered thematically and musically on the tragically premature death of Silvestri’s wife. The poem’s narrative is movingly accounted and supported in Whitacre’s setting, full of sorrow and loss punctuated by excruciating silences, and yet, in the way only music is able to do, promising a kind of ultimate consolation. Whitacre also conducted the Master Chorale in his composition.

Shawn Kirchner’s fulsome and vital settings/arrangements of three songs from The Sacred Harp ‘tunebook’ followed. They burst with energy and vitality, not to mention some subtle gestures, surprising obbligatos and counter-melodies, and even an identifiable fugue in the concluding song.

At the intermission, it was announced from the stage that Grant Gershon and The Los Angeles Master Chorale would be inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame. Maestro Gershon’s acceptance of the award from Catherine Dehoney, CEO of Chorus America, was not the pro forma smile/thanks/hug/applause affair we’ve all sat through at one time or another. I’ve observed this conductor and his choir long enough to know that he would have preferred to break the statuette into enough pieces to give each member of the Chorale their own award: there is no mistaking the genuine admiration he has for his singers. He’d have kept the smallest fragment for himself.

The group turned next to the major event of the concert: Morten Lauridsen’s solemn Lux Aeterna. First performed in 1997 under the baton of then Los Angeles Master Chorale Music Director Paul Salamunovich, this is the first Disney Hall performance of the liturgical masterwork in its original version for chorus and orchestra. Lauridsen chose five sections from the Requiem, in the original Latin, and musically illuminates these texts, with their multiple references to light.

There is a deep and moving serenity to the work, and the few passages of musical and emotional turbulence are inevitably soothed, while intimations of loss are consoled as the liturgy concludes in repose and solace. Its modernism, especially the harmonies, are resolved and consoled in transformative ways. This is a score that warrants close scrutiny and rewards multiple hearings. Finally, it is a composition of great dignity, consolation and resolution. The superb Master Chorale met every condition of its obligation, and the performance was exquisite.

It creates an odd sensation to cheer at the conclusion of a Requiem, and yet the achievement of this composition – indeed of the whole program – deserved no less. The performers earned every clap they received, and there is, obversely, a need for listeners to acknowledge their gratitude. The arc of the concert, from Salonen’s setting of Dante to Lauridsen’s achingly beautiful statement of compassion and solace, articulated a dignity and restraint of expression, which were due every bit of offered praise.

Douglas Dutton

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