OVERNIGHT REVIEW: L.A. Master Chorale offers weekend-long tribute to composer Morten Lauridsen

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

mortenDuring its 50th anniversary season, the Los Angeles Master Chorale is looking back over some of the group’s high points during its first half-century. This past weekend the Chorale focused on its long relationship with composer Morten Lauridsen (right). Friday night the Chorale hosted a screening of Michael Stillwater’s 2012 award-winning documentary, Shining Light: A Portrait of Composer Morten Lauridsen, at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. Last night before a sold-out house at Walt Disney Concert Hall the Chorale presented a moving musical tribute to Lauridsen that was expertly crafted by Music Director Grant Gershon and beautifully sung by 48 members of the chorus.

William Hall, a well-known and long-time choral conductor, once said that the hardest program to conduct is a collection of short pieces; by comparison, he said, conducting Verdi’s Requiem is far easier. That last night’s program — which included two dozen pieces, sung in five languages — didn’t validate Hall’s opinion was due, in large measure, to the fact that “the Master Chorale has the music of Lauridsen in its DNA,” as Gershon noted in a post-screening discussion Friday night.

Predictably the weekend turned into a love fest. Gershon called Lauridsen “the greatest American choral composer of our time, all of all time.” Lauridsen later described the Master Chorale as “a jewel of our nation.” Fortunately the speeches were mercifully brief; the singing took the spotlight.

Lauridsen accompanied two of the works — Nocturnes and Les Chansons des Roses — on the piano. It’s interesting that most composers rarely perform music that they write for other groups or individuals. John Adams, for example, occasionally conducts his own works but almost never has the chance to play them. Choral and vocal composers are the exception to the rule, so it was both poignant and memorable that Lauridsen was able to accompany two of his best-known works last night, quite well, I might add.

Moreover, just to show that he’s not riding off into the sunset at the age of 71, Lauridsen has taken a 1991 poem, Prayer, by poet Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endwoment for the Arts and now Lauridsen’s colleague at USC, and set it into an evocative, six-minute anthem that was stunningly performed by the Master Chorale as the penultimate work last night. For good measure Gioia was on hand to recite the program before the Master Chorale sang Lauridsen’s setting.

Lauridsen’s history with the Master Chorale began in 1964, when the Pacific Northwest native came to Los Angeles to study at USC. A year later, when the LAMC was founded, Lauridsen began attending concerts in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, “from the cheap seats, high up,” he noted with a chuckle last night. In 1972, Lauridsen — now age 71 — joined the faculty of the USC School of Music where he still teaches. He served as LAMC’s Composer-in-Residence from 1994-2001.

For Gershon, Lauridsen’s music is truly in his DNA. Midwinter Songs on Poems by Robert Graves, which opened last night’s concert, was commissioned for the centennial of USC’s founding in 1980. It was premiered by the USC Chamber Singers, which included not only Gershon among the singers but also current LAMC members Elissa Johnston and Nancy Sulahian.

Midwinter Songs was one of many pieces that reflect the composer’s life-long love of poetry (he begins each class at USC by reading a poem). Stylistically, however, it’s quite different from the lush Lauridsen music for which he is now most famous (including Lux Aeterna, which didn’t appear on the program). The Chorale sang the icy music of Midwinter Songs expertly, accompanied by pianist Lisa Edwards (Lauridsen originally wrote the treacherous piano part for Mack Wilberg, now music director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir).

Gershon had his singers performing in different locations throughout the evening: men in the center, women in the center and then all women left and all men right. He also programmed one piece, Ave Dulcissima Maria, for men alone and another, Canticle/O Vos Omnes, with the women accompanying Gary Bovyer who played a hauntingly evocative clarinet. Theresa Dimond played finger cymbals on the former piece and chimes on Canticle.

For choral singers in the audience, Gershon — now in his 13th season at the fourth music director of the Master Chorale — continues to be a pleasure to watch, his hands sculpting phrases elegantly and his cutoffs nearly imperceptible but nonetheless precise. The choir nearly always sings as a flexible, unified ensemble and they were particularly elegant in Sure on This Shining Night from Nocturnes, which was premiered by the Donald Brinegar Singers in 2005.

The second half began with Madrigali: Six “Fire Songs” on Italian Renaissance Poems and continued with Les Chansons des Roses. After its performance of Prayer, the Chorale concluded the program by singing one of Lauridsen’s best-known works, O Magnum Mysterium, which Gershon dedicated to Paul Salamunovich, the ensemble’s Music Director Emeritus, who is gravely ill.

• CK Dexter Haven has a very long, but fascinating interview with Lauridsen posted on his Web site “All is Yar” HERE. If you’re a hardcore Lauridsen fan, you’ve heard much (but not all) of this before but it’s still worth reading.

• The documentary Shining Night is available through many brick-and-mortar stores, as well as on amazon.com

(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Pasadena Symphony resumes youth movement

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this story was printed today in the above newspapers.

Pasadena Symphony; Andrew Grams, conductor, Simone Porter, violin
March 29 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Preview one hour before each performance.
Ambassador Auditorium; 131 South St. John Ave., Pasadena
Tickets: $35-$105.
Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

Simone_Porter_4_WebFor more than a quarter-century the Pasadena Symphony has distinguished itself by discovering young, talented soloists. Earlier this year 13-year-old pianist Umi Garrett soloed in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1. For the PSO’s programs on March 29 at Ambassador Auditorium, a “grizzled veteran,” 17-year-old violinist Simone Porter (pictured right), will join the orchestra and guest conductor Andrew Grams for a performance of Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1. The concerts will open with William Bolcom’s Commedia for (Almost) 18th Century Orchestra and will conclude with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.

Porter’s PSO appearance is one of several important local concerts for her this year. On April 27 she will play Beethoven’s Romances 1 & 2 with the Pacific Symphony, led by Carl St.Clair, at the SOKA Performing Arts Center in Aliso Viejo. On Sept. 4 she will make her Hollywood Bowl debut as soloist in Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot.

A native of Seattle, Porter studies with Robert Lipsett at The Colburn Conservatory of Music in downtown Los Angeles. She is also part of Colburn Artists, a program created in 2012 by The Colburn School to provide professional management services to its most-accomplished students.

The PSO’s “youth movement” also includes its guest conductor. Grams, a 36-year-old Maryland native, last fall became music director of the Elgin Symphony just outside of Chicago, an ensemble that is similar in many respects to the Pasadena Symphony. In January he conducted the Baltimore Symphony in a concert that elicited from Tim Smith, music critic of The Baltimore Sun, the following: “The year is not even a week old, and there’s a contender for highlight of the 2014 music season in Baltimore.”

Meanwhile, two area choral groups resume their seasons this week.

• Jeffrey Bernstein leads the Pasadena Master Chorale in “The Voice of California” on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and next Sunday at 4 p.m. at Altadena Community Church. The program features music by Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen, along with premieres by Los Angeles-based composers Matt Brown and Reena Esmail. Information: www.pasadenamasterchorale.org

• Artistic Director John Sutton will lead his Angeles Chorale in “Romancing the Soul,” an evening of Brahms love songs on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Pasadena’s First United Methodist Church and March 30 at 4 p.m. at Northridge United Methodist Church. Information: www.angeleschorale.org

• This evening at 7 p.m. in Walt Disney Concert Hall, Grant Gershon leads 48 members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale in music by famed Southern California composer Morten Lauridsen. The program will include Mid-Winter Songs, Ave Dulcissima Maria, Canticle/O Vos Omnes, O Magnum Mysterium, , Madrigali, Nocturnes and Les Chansons des Roses (Lauridsen will accompany the last two pieces on the piano). Ironically, the only major piece the Chorale won’t be singing is Lux Aeterna, which has become a choral landmark since it was premiered and recorded by the Master Chorale in 1997. Information: www.lamc.org

(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: “Billy Budd,” L.A. Chamber Orchestra, L.A. Phil headline busy fornight + upcoming schedues

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this article was first published today in the above papers.

Several significant events will take place during the next fortnight, headed by Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd, which opens next Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in the first of six performances running through March 16 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Four performances are in the evening while two are in the afternoon.

LAO Music Director James Conlon will conduct this production and will offer one of his typically erudite lectures an hour before each performance. Billy Budd concludes the company’s celebration of the centennial of Britten’s birth on Nov. 22, 2013.

Baritone Liam Bonner performs the title role for the first time, joining with tenor Richard Croft as Captain Vere and bass Greer Grimsley, making his company debut, as John Claggart, whose attraction to Billy is the pivot point of the opera. The production, by Francesca Zambello, originated in Geneva in 2004 and at London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1995; it was first seen in L.A. in 2000.
Read my preview story HERE.
John Farrell’s story in the above newspapers is HERE
David Ng’s preview story in the Los Angeles Times is HERE.

Information: www.laopera.com

• The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra presents its annual “Discover” concert at Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena Saturday night at 8 p.m. The program this year focuses on Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (Eroica). In the first half of the program, Music Director Jeffrey Kahane will lead the orchestra in a demonstration and discuss this pivotal work in classical music history. The second half will be a complete performance of the symphony.

Information: www.laco.org

• The Los Angeles Philharmonic begins its “TchaikovskyFest” series on Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall with a performance by the Simón Bolivár Symphony Orchestra String Quartet and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Beginning Friday and continuing every night (and some days) except one through March 2, Gustavo Dudamel will lead his two orchestras, the Phil and SBSO, in performances of all six of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies plus other assorted works. Mark Swed has an interview with Gustavo in the Los Angeles Times HERE.

Information: www.laphil.com

• Muse/ique continues its “Uncorked” series with a performance on Feb. 24 at “The Noise Within,” the theatre/performing space located just north of the Gold Line’s Sierra Madre Villa station at the eastern edge of Pasadena.

Music Director Rachael Worby will lead 13 members of her ensemble in Aaron Copland’s original score for the ballet Appalachian Spring. However, in true Worby fashion, that’s just part of the evening. The 70-minute program will also feature Mike Simpson (aka EZ Mike of the Dust Brothers) and fits + starts for electronic music with live cello, a piece commissioned by L.A.’s Hysterica Dance Company from composer Anna Clyne. Kitty McNamee and members of Hysterica Dance Co. will supply choreography for the evening.

Information: www.muse-ique.org

* The 2014 summer schedule for Hollywood Bowl and 2014-2015 season schedules for L.A. Opera, the L.A. Phil and Los Angeles Master Chorale have been released. My comments are listed in recent Blog posts (links below). Each post contains a link to the schedule and other information:
Hollywood Bowl 2014 summer season
Los Angeles Opera 2014-2015 season
Los Angeles Philharmonic 2014-2015 season
Los Angeles Master Chorale (below the Hollywood Bowl blurb)

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AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Hollywood Bowl, L.A. Master Chorale announce upcoming seasons

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

Schedules for 2014-2015 continue to flow in:

• Three different versions of hair are among the highlights of the 93rd Hollywood Bowl season, which was announced Tuesday. The 2014 season begins June 14 and 15 with the 36th annual Playboy Jazz Festivals and spans 15 weeks through September.

Amid a dizzying number of pops, jazz, world music and movie nights, the Los Angeles Philharmonic will have its 10-week-long classical season, which begins July 8 and concludes September 11. Music Director Gustavo Dudamel, he of the curly hair, will lead four programs over five evenings, including another segment of his “Americas & Americans” series, an evening entitled “Noche de Cine” that will include a suite from Dudamel’s score to the movie Libertador on July 31.

The other hair-related programs will be a 50th anniversary re-creation of The Beatles appearance at Hollywood Bowl that will take place August 22, 23 and 24, and a production of the 1968 Broadway musical, Hair, on August 1, 2 and 3. Since the listing for Hair includes the words “contains mature subject matter and brief nudity,” one can assumed this will be a virtually complete production.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Phil’s Conductor Laureate, is among the conductors who will lead the Phil. He has programs scheduled on July 15 and 17.

Read the complete schedule HERE.
The entire Hollywood Bowl press kit is HERE.

The Los Angeles Master Chorale’s 51st season will have Music Director Grant Gershon leading 10 concerts (14 performances) in Walt Disney Concert Hall that feature world premieres by Shawn Kirchner and Nack-Kum Paik. Nearly half of the 20 composers represented in the schedule are alive.

One who isn’t alive (literally, at any rate) is Johann Sebastian Bach whose St. Matthew Passion will be featured twice: the Chorale, along with the Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra and Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, will offer Bach’s version on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, while Tan Dun’s Water Passion after St. Matthew will be sung April 11 and 12, 2015. Dun’s piece was commissioned by Helmuth Rilling for the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death in 2000.

Another “Passion” oriented work will open the season on Oct. 19 when the Chorale presents Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light/The Passion of Joan of Arc. Written for chorus, soloists and orchestra, the piece accompanies Carl Dreyer’s 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc.

The season announcement also reveals a bit about the upcoming Los Angeles Philharmonic season as the Chorale will sing in performances of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy and John Adams’ Harmonium led by Gustavo Dudamel October 9-12; for performances of Berlioz’ Romeo and Juliet under the baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen November 7-9; and in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis to be led by Michael Tilson Thomas January 9-11, 2015.

Details on the Master Chorale season are HERE.

(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Los Angeles Master Chorale celebrates 50th anniversary season with Bach’s B Minor Mass

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

Los Angeles Master Chorale; Grant Gershon, conductor
Bach: Mass in B Minor, BWV 232
Saturday at 2 p.m. (note the unusual start time)
Jan. 26 at 7 p.m. Preconcert lecture with Grant Gershon and Alan Chapman one hour before each performance
Walt Disney Concert Hall, 1st St. and Grand Ave., Los Angeles
Tickets: $29-$129 (student rush seats may be available at the box office two hours before performance)
Information: www.lamc.org

Forty-nine years almost to the day (Jan. 27, 1965) from when Roger Wagner stepped onto a podium in the newly minted Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to conduct Los Angeles Master Chorale in its inaugural concert, a performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass, the Chorale will celebrate that first concert with a performance of Bach’s masterpiece on Saturday afternoon and next Sunday evening in Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Grant Gershon, who became the Chorale’s fourth music director in 2001, will lead 115 singers including 12 soloists (all Chorale members) plus a symphonic orchestra in what turned out to be one of the final pieces that Bach completed, a work considered to be a pinnacle of choral music. The Mass contains music that Bach had composed over a quarter-century, although most of it was revised for the final work. The B-Minor Mass was never performed in totality during Bach’s lifetime; the first documented complete performance took place in 1859.

The performance marks the Chorale coming full circle from when famed conductor Roger Wagner founded the chorus in 1964. Wagner — who had created his own small group, the Roger Wagner Chorale, in 1945 — formed the Los Angeles Master Chorale as one of three resident groups of the Music Center of Los Angeles. For the first 39 years, it performed at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Since the completion of Walt Disney Concert Hall 11 years ago, the LAMC has joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic as resident groups at that iconic hall.

In addition to presenting history’s major choral works, the Master Chorale has commissioned 39 and premiered 88 new works, of which 57 were world premieres. The Master Chorale has half-dozen of its own CDs, most notably the first CD of Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna. The group will be featured on an upcoming CD of John Adams’ oratorio, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, scheduled to be released March 10 by Deutsche Grammophon. Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Master Chorale and soloists in this live recording at Disney Hall.

Next weekend’s concerts are among the 14 programs on the Master Chorale’s 50th anniversary season, along with its extensive work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The weekend will include a gala celebration entitled “Golden on Grand,” which will take place at 6 p.m. in the Eva and Marc Stern Grand Hall of the Pavilion. Tickets for that event are $650 per person. Information: www.lamc.org

(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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