OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, American Youth Symphony at Walt Disney Concert Hall

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
News

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Los Angeles
Children’s Chorus; American Youth Symphony

James Conlon, Anne
Tomlinson, Alexander Treger, conductors

Music by Vaughan Williams, Britten, Beam, Wilcocks and
Bjarnason

March 4 at 7:30 p.m. Walt Disney Concert Hall.

 

NOTE: With this
review, I come violate one of my cardinal rules, which is to not review people
for whom I’ve sung or with whom I am well acquainted. Anne Tomlinson fits in
the latter category and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus is housed at my
church [Pasadena Presbyterian]. Thus, you can — as the late, great Molly Ivins
was often wont to say, take this review with “a grain of salt or a pound of
salt,” if you are so inclined.

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We’ve just come off of six weeks that, among other things,
focused attention on Venezuela’s “El Sistema” music education system and the
Los Angeles Philharmonic’s attempt to reproduce — in some fashion — the success
of that endeavor locally.

 

Lost amid the Mahler, hoopla and acronyms such as YOLA and
HOLA is the fact that this region can boast of several ensembles that
demonstrate what happens when the musical cream rises to the top. Two of those
groups, the American Youth Symphony and Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, combined
for a concert last night at Walt Disney Concert Hall that concluded with the
world premiere of an intriguing cantata, The
isle is full of noises
by Icelandic composer Daniel Bjarnason.

 

The Los Angeles Children’s Chorus (which, despite its name
is based in Pasadena) was founded in 1986 and has become one of the nation’s
leading children’s choral programs. There are now more than 375 children, ages
6-18, participating in seven choirs and an extensive music education program.
Its artistic director, Anne Tomlinson, has been at the helm for 16 years and
LACC regularly performs with the L.A. Phil, Los Angeles Opera and other
professional groups, while also presenting its own programs. The group’s
Concert Choir recently sang for both Mahler Symphony No. 3 and No. 8.

 

Founded in 1964 by Mehli Mehta (father of former LAPO Music
Director Zubin Mehta), the American Youth Symphony has trained more than 200
musicians who now play in professional orchestras. Together the New York
Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony and Cleveland Orchestra have eight AYS alumni in
principal posts, while the L.A. Phil, L.A. Chamber Orchestra and L.A. Opera
Orchestra use 32 members who worked with the AYS.

 

For their appearance on the Phil’s “Sounds About Town”
series this year, the two organizations combined to commission Bjarnason’s
14-minute, three-movement piece based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In the preconcert lecture, Tomlinson identified a
significant problem of writing a big piece for a children’s chorus: the range
of the young singers is only slightly more than two octaves, far less than if a
composer were writing for adults.

 

Bjarnason, who at age 31 isn’t all that much older than some
of the AYS instrumentalists (that group’s upper age limit is 27), was equal to
the task. He chose the texts purposefully; his grandfather translated
Shakespeare’s sonnets into Icelandic, a project that was published just before
his grandfather’s death.

 

Deciding that some of Shakespeare’s sonnets weren’t
appropriate textually for children, Bjarnason instead turned to The Tempest and selected Miranda’s O I Have Suffered, Caliban’s Be Not Afear’d and Prospero’s The Cloud-Capp’d Towers as the texts for
the three movements. He reserved the loudest, richest orchestral moments for
when the children weren’t singing, creating massed clusters of sound with piano
and percussion punctuation. However, during the choral portions Bjarnason
skillfully cut back the orchestra so as not to overpower the 86 members of the
LACC Concert Choir, whom he challenged with close harmonies and tricky sliding
chromatic scales; the composition ranged from unison singing to as many as 12
parts. The result was often intriguing and occasionally riveting.

 

Conlon, who spends much of his life balancing orchestras
with singers, was the perfect choice to lead this premiere performance. He did
an expert job of balancing and supplied a supple hand to the score’s tone
painting. The orchestra — with Principal Flute Alexandra Walin standing out in
her solo turns — played with assurance and skill and the choristers sang with
compelling gracefulness and cohesion. Considering that the singers had
relatively little time to prepare owing to their work in the Phil’s “Mahler
Project,” their performance was particularly noteworthy.

 

Prior to the Bjarnason work, Alexander Treger, who has been
the orchestra’s music director since 1998, led his AYS in a polished
performance of a suite from Prokofiev’s ballet, Romeo and Juliet. Last week, Charles Dutoit led the L.A. Phil in a
riveting performance of eight sections of the ballet and if Treger’s concept
(using just six sections) felt a little more episodic than Dutoit’s, this
performance had its exhilarating moments, as well.

 

In the first half of the program, three of the LACC choirs
began the Shakespearean theme by performing a series of short selections from
American and British composers. The 16 high-school girls of the Chamber Singers
made a block dividing the larger Intermediate and Apprentice Choirs.

 

The most impressive performance was the initial selection:
Douglas Beam’s Spirits, which
Tomlinson conducted and the combined choirs sang with impressive diction and
precision.

 

Individually, the Intermediate Choir (led by Mandy Brigham)
and the Apprentice Choir (led by Larissa Donnelly) sang Britten’s Fancie, Robert Johnson’s Where the Bee Sucks and Vaughan
Williams’ Orpheus with His Lute with
supple grace, although the diction was more muddied (part of which can be laid
at the hands of the composers). The Chamber Singers concluded the set with a
sweet performance of Vaughan Williams’ Sigh
No More, Ladies.
Among other things, the collection of choirs and songs
provided the audience with valuable lessons in how voices change as children
grow older and gain more experience in choral singing. Twyla Meyer accompanied
skillfully on the piano.

 

To conclude the first half, Tomlinson returned to the podium
to the lead the orchestra and Concert Choir (LACC’s flagship ensemble) in a
performance of David Wilcocks’ The
Glories of Shakespeare.
Actor Stuart W. Howard opened the piece by reciting
lines from uncredited, albeit familiar Shakespeare lines, and he and Lina Patel
added additional recitatives between each of the five selections in this
pastiche.

 

Unlike Bjarnason, whose orchestral writing covered a wide
range, Wilcocks’ orchestral accompaniments stayed mainly with the two-octave
treble-voice range, which made the work less interesting. Whether it was the
singers not projecting quite enough volume or the orchestra playing with two
much, Tomlinson had troubles with balances in the first piece but provided a
more integrated whole during the final four movements. Principal Flute Walin
again provided sparkling solo work.

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Hemidemisemiquavers:

Apparently bowing to complaints raised from opening night
onward about Disney Hall’s inability to adequately project spoken words, a
large horn cluster was suspended above the stage, which made diction from
Howard and Patel much clearer. It also looked ugly and overpowering but one can
hope that someone will figure out a way to cover the horns in a way that blends
more aesthetically with Frank Gehry’s wood walls and ceiling.

One thing the horn array did was eliminate the use
overhead projection of texts, which were, instead, in a printed-program insert.
Fortunately, house management left the lights up sufficiently for people to
follow the texts when that was necessary.

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(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.