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.

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

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