OVERNIGHT REVIEW: L.A. Master Chorale concludes season with “Lux Aeterna” and other works at Disney Hall

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Los Angeles Master Chorale; Grant Gershon, conductor
Saturday at Walt Disney Concert Hall
Next performances: Tomorrow at 8 p.m. (part of Gala Dinner program)
Thursday at 8 p.m. (part of Chorus America conference)
Information: www.lamasterchorale.org

The Los Angeles Philharmonic, rightfully so, is celebrated for its commitment to new music, both the pieces performed and even more for the pieces it commissions each season (next season the Phil will offer 23 commissions, 22 world premieres, six U.S. premieres and two west coast premieres).

However, many of the finest new compositions are in the realm of choral music and nobody celebrates this music joyously as Artistic Director Grant Gershon and the Los Angeles Master Chorale, which closed its 53rd season yesterday at Walt Disney Concert Hall with a concert of works written within the past 20 years.

If the Chorale’s splendid performance of Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna was the afternoon’s highlight (I’ll discuss it in a few paragraphs from now) then the revelations were the seven a cappella pieces written by five composers integrally linked to the Master Chorale.

All of the composers either studied or were otherwise influenced by Lauridsen, who has been a professor of music at the USC Thornton School of Music for more than 50 years but always reserves the summer to do his composing on an isolated retreat in the San Juan Islands outside of Washington. Several of the works chosen yesterday played off of themes expressed in Lux Aeterna: hope, illumination and reassurance.

The most moving work was Angel Band, part of Heavenly Home: Three American Songs, by Shawn Kirchner, a member of the choir’s tenor section, who served for three years as Master Chorale Composer in Residence (as did Lauridsen before him).

The choir’s intonation of the moving Angel Band text was mesmerizing and Grant Gershon segued without pause into a rollicking version of Unclouded Day (although I’m not sure that a day without puffy clouds would be my idea of paradise).

Two of the pre-intermission works were world premieres: In Gratitude by Billy Childs, which the choir sang with diction so precise that the supertitles were not needed; and Time in Our Voices by Moira Smiley, which grew out of the Chorale’s Oratorio Project at Van Nuys High School (REVIEW LINK) and was conducted expertly by Assistant Conductor Jenny Wong.

The concert opened with Iri Da Iri, a work with slowly shifting chords that former L.A. Phil Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen wrote on a commission from the Master Chorale members for the ensemble’s 50th anniversary in 2014.

Current LAMC Composer in Residence Eric Whitacre conducted the west coast premiere of I Fall, a piece with texts by Charles Anthony Silvestri that came 12 years after his wife’s untimely death. It’s a melancholy work that the Chorale sang with elegance. The piece will be part of an evening-long work Whitacre expects to complete next year entitled The Sacred Veil.

When Lux Aeterna was premiered by the Master Chorale on April 13, 1997 in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, I was in attendance. I’ve since heard it many times and sung it several more. My opinion hasn’t changed since that first hearing: it’s one of the landmark compositions of the late 20th century.

It’s also one of the most popular major choral pieces right now; the composer’s publishes says that the choral/orchestra version is performed about 50 times per year in the U.S. That doesn’t count the organ/choral version performances nor concerts outside the U.S., nor does it count the numerous church choirs who have the work’s third movement, O Nata Lux, in their libraries.

Lauridsen wrote Lux Aeterna for the Chorale’s makeup at the time. Prior to Lux Aeterna he had written another landmark piece, O Magnum Mysterium, for the Chorale and Lux Aeterna proved to be a natural successor.

The Master Chorale’s music director, Paul Salamunovich, loved Gregorian chant and he built his chorale forces from the bottom up, with men’s sections that produced particularly rich, deep sound; both factors have been clearly in evidence throughout the past 20 years.

The ensemble that Gershon has built is a more flexible force, even with 132 singers on the stage. Gershon emphasizes diction and projecting the meaning of texts and the Chorale has a somewhat leaner sound than was apparent under his predecssor. All of that was clearly in evidence Saturday as Gershon led Lux Aeterna’s first performance with choir and orchestra in Disney Hall — he had programmed the organ/choral version for the ensemble’s 50th anniversary season.

Gershon led an unhurried performance but one that never lost the sense of line. The Chorale sang as a marvelously flexible unit throughout, but particularly in O Nata Lux, which is the work’s central point both literally and figuratively.

Even with Lux Aeterna’s hushed ending, the performance brought forth an instantaneous standing ovation from the near-capacity crowd, applause which reached its apex when Lauridsen came on stage to join Gershon, the chorus and orchestra for the celebration. I wished I had been singing.

• Although this concert represented the formal ending of the Master Chorale’s season (the performance tonight is part of a gala dinner honoring Lauridsen) and Thursday’s performance is the closing performance at the Chorus America national conference taking place in Los Angeles.
• The MC will sponsor “Big Sing L.A.,” a large group sing on Saturday at 1 p.m. in Grand Park (south of the Music Center). Five conductors will lead the songs (song sheets will be provided). Information: www.lamasterchorale.org
• The Chorale will perform five times this summer at Hollywood Bowl and on July 31 with the New York Philharmonic in Santa Barbara, before opening its 54th season Sept. 23 and 24 with a concert that includes Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Information: www.lamasterchorale.org

(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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NEWS: Former L.A. Master Chorale Music Director Paul Salamunovich dies at 86

The world of music in general and Southern California in particular lost a giant when word came today that Paul Salamunovich passed away last night at age 86 from complications resulting from West Nile virus.

The California native and long-time North Hollywood resident was Music Director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale from 1991 to 2001, Director of Choral Music at St. Charles Borromeo Church in North Hollywood for 60 years (1949-2009), an esteemed music educator who held academic posts at Mount St. Mary’s College and Loyola Marymount University, and an adjunct professor at the USC Thornton School of Music.

When he became the LAMC’s third music director, he rebuilt the sound style first established by Roger Wagner into an indelible choral instrument. He also worked with Morten Lauridsen, who was LAMC’s first Composer-in-Residence from 1995-2001 winning acclaim and awards for their performances of works such as Lux Aeterna and O Magnum Mysterium.

A detailed obituary is at the L.A. Master Chorale Web site HERE.

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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: Pasadena Symphony to pair Beethoven with Morten Lauridsen Feb. 15

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

Pasadena Symphony, soloists and Donald Brinegar Singers; Kazem Abdullah, conductor
Sat., Feb. 15 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Preconcert lecture one hour ahead of each performance.
Ambassador Auditorium, 131 S. St. John Ave.
Tickets: $35-$105. Student and senior rush tickets available
Information: 626/793-7172; www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org

The Pasadena Symphony finishes its 2013-2014 season in a somewhat strange way as three guest conductors mount the Ambassador Auditorium to conduct the PSO during the next four months.

Symphony schedules are typically planned years in advance and the current list was created before David Lockington was named PSO music director and Nicholas McGegan was tapped as the orchestra’s principal guest conductor last year. As fate would have it, that duo led the opening concerts for this season, leaving each of the three remaining guests to lead programs centered on war-horse blockbusters.

On Feb. 15 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Kazem Abdullah will conduct the orchestra and Donald Brinegar Singers in performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, along with two works by noted Southern California composer Morten Lauridsen: Midwinter Songs and Nocturnes. Soloists in the final movement of the Beethoven, “Ode to Joy,” will be Tracy Cox, soprano; Laura Harrison, mezzo-soprano; Casey Candebat, tenor; and Andrew Craig Brown, bass

You would think that in the 21st century it wouldn’t be necessary to note the obvious: Abdullah is one of the few African-American conductors working today. Of course, he had to go to Europe to find a regular job, in this case, Generalmusikdirektor of the City of Aachen, Germany, a post he assumed in 2012. Abdullah, who was born on July 4, 1979 studied, among other places, at USC.

Although many people will come to Ambassador for Beethoven’s 9th, the two pieces by Lauridsen are intriguing. Lauridsen, who lives in Hollywood and has been a professor of music at USC for 40 years, is one of the most important choral composers in the world today. Although best known for his later works, including Lux Aeterna and O Magnum Mysterium, Lauridsen’s unique style was first fully shown off in Midwinter Songs, which is based on a text by English poet Robert Graves. Midwinter Songs was written in 1980 and orchestrated in 1983.

Nocturnes was written in 2005 and is based on texts from poets Rainier Maria Rike, Pablo Neruda and James Agee. A highlight of the piece is Sure on This Shining Night, based on an Agee poem. That piece is also featured in a 2012 documentary on Lauridsen’s life, Shining Night, which will be shown on March 14 at the Alex Theatre in Glendale (INFO). That program is sponsored by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, which will sing a concert of Lauridsen’s music two nights later in Walt Disney Concert Hall (INFO)

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

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