OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Los Angeles Master Chorale 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 Master
Chorale; Grant Gershon, conductor

Sunday, October 16, 2011 Walt Disney Concert Hall

Next concert:
Nov. 13, 2011 at 7 p.m. Gershon conducts David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion, the U.S. premiere of James Newton’s Mass and two motes by J.S. Bach (INFO)

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Grant Gershon (left), music director of the Los Angeles Master
Chorale, LOVES program titles. When he designed last night’s concert — the
opening event in the ensemble’s 48th season — he originally called
it “From Here to Eternity.” Other marketing mavens intervened, however, and the
title ended up as “Lux Aeterna,” in honor of Morten Lauridsen’s famous choral
work that concluded the program at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

 

Smart move; the house was packed last night, which isn’t a
surprise. Since the Master Chorale commissioned the work from Lauridsen in
1997, no other piece has more defined the ensemble. And it’s not just the
Master Chorale that loves it. Since it was premiered and then recorded by the ensemble
and its former music director, Paul Salumunovich, Lux Aeterna has become one of the most popular choral pieces written
in recent years. In last night’s preconcert “Listen Up!” program, KUSC radio
host Alan Chapman remarked that whenever Lux
Aeterna
is played during one of his station’s innumerable pledge drives, phones
ring off the hook with donations.

 

However, the piece performed last night was quite a ways
removed from the orchestral version that most people know. Gershon chose instead
to accompany the 30-minute work with Paul Meier (associate organist at St.
James Episcopal Church on Wilshire Blvd.) playing the 6,100-pipe Disney Hall
organ. (Lauridsen — obviously a canny businessman — wrote both versions of Lux Aeterna simultaneously, knowing that
far more choruses and church choirs would be able to perform it with an organ
accompanying instead of hiring an orchestra).

 

Thus, last night’s Lux
Aeterna
had quite a different sound and feel to it, but that wasn’t all due
to Meier. Gershon himself put his own distinctive stamp on last night’s
performance, as well. The 115-member Chorale was much more expressive and
subtle than on the recording, employing impeccable diction and bringing great
feeling to the Latin texts in the five connected movements, including its most
famous section, O Nata Lux.

 

I wasn’t totally sold on all of Meier’s registrations and
the balance between choir and organ wasn’t always perfect but the opening notes,
beginning with a single note from one of Frank Gehry’s 32-foot wooden organ
pipes, and the transition from O Nata Lux
to Veni, Sancte Spiritus were particularly
effective. The audience was mesmerized; there were at least 10 seconds of
silence after the final Amen before
the hall erupted in a standing ovation for Gershon, the Chorale and, in
particular, Lauridsen, who was in the audience.

 

The opening half of the program consisted of totally a
cappella works, all written by still-living composers. The earliest work on the
program dated from 1990: the U.S. premiere of Music for a big church; for tranquility by Swedish composer Thomas
Jennefelt, a 10-minute vocalize exercise with the male voices setting a
polyphonic chordal foundation while the women swirled above and below them.

 

The rest of the first-half pieces were notable for, among
other things, the composers’ ability to fit their music expertly to poetic
texts, beginning with Eric Whitacre’s 2002 anthem, Her Sacred Spirit Soars, which employs rising scales from a 10-part
double chorus to accentuate a text by Charles Anthony Silvestri. The Chorale’s
fortissimo ending raised the proverbial Disney Hall roof.

 

English composer Tarik O’Regan (whose first opera, Heart of Darkness, will be premiered
next month at Royal Opera, Covent Garden, in London) used mostly homophonic
writing that allowed the Chorale to declaim grim words by Chilean poet Pablo
Neruda with great feeling. Leslie Leighton, the Chorale’s associate conductor,
conducted but the Chorale couldn’t quite achieve the precision it demonstrated
under Gershon in the rest of the program.

 

The upbeat strains of Heavenly
Home,
a “bluegrass triptych” of 19th century American folk hymns
arranged by chorus member Shawn Kirchner, concluded the opening half. Premiered
by the Chorale last year, the three arrangements proved to be a perfect
antidote to Neruda’s tragic depiction of a battle, even if Kirchner’s subject
matter did deal with the trip from this life to the next. As far as Kirchner
and the text writers are concerned, the trip (and its destination) will be
joyous. Jaunty arrangements of Unclouded
Day
and Hallelujah bracketed the
winsome Angel Band, in which Kirchner
gave his fellow tenors soaring melodic lines in the middle verse.

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Hemidemisemiquavers:

Among the more interesting tidbits from the preconcert
lecture was the revelation that Lauridsen (who has been a professor at the USC
Thornton School of Music for more than 30 years) reads poetry every day and
begins every class with a poem

Photo caption: Grant Gershon conducted the Los Angeles Master Chorale last night in Walt Disney Concert Hall, the opening concert of the Chorale’s 48th season. Photo credit: Alex Berliner for Los Angeles Master Chorale.

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(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.