The Sacred and Profane Spar for Top Billing in LA Master Chorale Season Opener

United StatesUnited States Bernstein, Orff: So Young Park (soprano), Nicholas Phan (tenor), Stephen Powell (baritone), Los Angeles Master Chorale and Orchestra / Grant Gershon (conductor), Los Angeles Children’s Chorus (directed by Anne Tomlinson), Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, 23.9.2017. (DLD)

BernsteinChichester Psalms

OrffCarmina Burana

The Los Angeles Master Chorale, long a source of pride (indeed, bragging rights) among Angelenos, opened the 2017-18 season in their home field, the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The performance was exacting, moving and as near to perfection as one might wish, yet filled with a humanity and emotional content that reached both mind and heart.

Followers of the Master Chorale often talk about the continuous growth and sophistication that the organization has shown during its tenure under Artistic Director Grant Gershon. The group’s core audience expects no less than the extraordinary, and this concert easily met and likely exceeded expectations. It was a program of ‘the sacred and the profane’, but that simple dichotomy is supplanted here by a musical tapestry that depicts a deeper human experience.

The program began with Chichester Psalms, Bernstein’s musical setting of selected, non-contiguous portions of the Book of Psalms in the original Hebrew. The declarative and homophonic opening of the chorus and orchestra, with its pointed dissonances, leads into a wonderful section of continuous canonic and fugal counterpoint. It makes a joyful noise – explicit instructions from the sacred text! – to be sure. The Master Chorale’s pliability and agility were on display for all to hear.

The second section opened with the astonishing boy soprano from the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, 13-year-old Jamie Felix-Toll, fearlessly throwing himself into his solo with the text from Psalm 23, ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want’. Bernstein‘s setting, among the most beautiful of his melodies, shrouded in harp and string accompaniment and echoed by the Chorale, is broken by a passage from the opening lines of Psalm 2 (‘Why do nations rage’) replete with percussive support and skittering xylophone, but eventually returns to its gentle origins.

The third movement begins with a restatement and reworking of preceding material, an instrumental recapitulation of many of the haunting motifs and jarring dissonances heard earlier in the score. Ultimately, the music settles into a languorous, flowing section, with imitative passages that act as spiritual affirmations. The rich textures are fashioned by the strings, soloists and chorus – a splendid respite. In the brief final section, the chorus intones a closure from Psalm 133, ‘Behold how good and pleasant it is for all people to live together as one’, initially a cappella, then cradled in the strings: a comforting close to this seldom-heard masterwork.

The ethereal, Bernstein-induced aura that enveloped the audience at the close of Chichester Psalms lifted faster than an LA fog when Gershon returned to the stage after intermission to lead the collected forces – bigger orchestra, huge mixed chorus, soloists, children’s chorus, numerous percussionists – in Carl Orff’s acknowledged masterpiece, Carmina Burana.

 The intelligent concert notes provided by Thomas May remind us that the figure of Igor Stravinsky, and especially his Les Noces, looms large in foreshadowing the modernism that inhabits Orff’s score, a work based on a late Medieval manuscript. He also notes that the classical forms involving thematic development are shed to make room for changing meters, repeated rhythmic figures, metrical variety and lots and lots of percussion.

 Is it correct to anoint Carmina Burana as a ‘masterpiece’? I know a few who turn their noses up at it – mostly academics looking over their shoulders – but few pieces can match Orff’s moments of controlled sonic mayhem, humor and sorrow (and tragicomedy for a certain swan).

When the group finally filled the stage (and they did indeed fill it), Conductor Gershon brought down his baton to a mighty ‘O Fortuna’ and we were off. There is little to comment upon in those exciting measures, but I was floored by the presence of the opening chords – not the loudness per se, but the manner in which the music seemed to occupy every nook and cranny of the entire hall.

There are 24 individual sections to Carmina Burana (and a ‘full circle’ repeated opening), and each section had its own striking or ecstatic moment. A few of the highlights were:

-The three vocal soloists: So Young Park, whose ‘Dulcissime’ was even sweeter than its subject; Nicholas Phan, whose goose may have been cooking but when singing seemed not to break a sweat, even at the top of his range; Stephen Powell, whose beauty of expression, surprising range, tonal variety and earthly dignity won the afternoon;

-The breathtaking perfection-in-chaos of the chorus in the multiple beauties of ‘Floret silva’ contrasting with the dynamism of ‘Veni, veni, venias’ and the delightful entreaties (and sly double entendres) in ‘Tempus est  iocundum’;

-The multi-faceted orchestra and individual players who easily mastered highs, lows and a multitude of middle ranges;

-The amazing variety and breadth of this composition, gleaned from the thinnest of sources, repackaged in ways both modern and ancient, and brought together by Grant Gershon, whose talents are appreciated in local circles but who deserves an occasional ‘bigger podium’.

The full title of the piece is Carmina Burana: Cantiones profanæ cantoribus et choris cantandæ comitantibus instrumentis atque imaginibus magicis, which translates as ‘Songs of Beuern: Secular songs for singers and choruses to be sung together with instruments and magic images’. Every one of Orff’s promises, including the ‘magic images’, was realized in this performance. There was no ‘lingering silence’ at the conclusion: the entire audience rose from their seats to pay homage to the majesty of it. Ecce gratum!

Douglas Dutton

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