Bach's “St. John” is no "St. Matthew." The "St. John Passion" does not hold the central place as one of the greatest and most revered spiritual artworks of Western civilization that Bach's “St. Matthew” does. "John" is smaller, shorter, more intimate, more dramatic. And controversial. Performances of “John” often include an apologia these days, since only one of Bach’s two surviving Passions is anti-Semitic.
But is “John” the lesser Passion? The current fashion is to consider it the modern one. It is prized for its terse theatricality and for the very fact that “John” is not weighed down by the sanctimonious baggage “Matthew” carries. But in a solemn performance by the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the period instrumental ensemble Musica Angelica at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Sunday night, “John” was expected to hold its spiritual own. And it did.
The Master Chorale’s music director, Grant Gershon, is a choral conductor with a foot on the lyric stage. He is also associate conductor of Los Angeles Opera, and there seems little doubt that he could have presented a histrionic, passionate “John” had he wanted to. But this was a “John” of consolation, not confrontation.
The Los Angeles Master Chorale's new season will include music by such prominent composers as Nico Muhly, Peter Lieberson and Judith Weir. It will also feature a piece written for the royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011.
The group's 2012-13 season, which is being announced Monday, will offer 11 concerts, all conducted by music director Grant Gershon. Performances will take place at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
The season is scheduled to kick off with a concert (Oct. 21) featuring Muhly's "A Good Understanding" and Weir's "Ascending into Heaven." The Master Chorale has already recorded the Muhly piece in an album released in 2010, but the concert will be the first time the group has performed it live in L.A.
The concert will include Paul Mealor's "Ubi caritas," a piece composed for last year's wedding of Britain's Prince William and Kate Middleton. It was one of a number of pieces performed at the wedding ceremony at Westminster Abbey. The concert will also include Arvo Pärt's "De Profundis" and Muhly's "Bright Mass With Canons."
The Master Chorale will team with Musica Angelica for a concert (Nov. 18) that will feature Monteverdi's "Vespers of 1610."
Now and then, you may hear a Bruckner symphony at Walt Disney Concert Hall, but did any of Bruckner’s big choral works ever receive a performance there? The answer is: Not until Sunday night, when Grant Gershon and the Los Angeles Master Chorale took on Bruckner’s somewhat peculiar Mass No. 2 in E minor.
And what kind of a sensibility would program a Bruckner mass alongside a piece by Stravinsky? An iconoclastic one, yes, but also a practical one, since both the Bruckner mass and to a large extent Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms” are powered and colored by wind and brass ensembles.
While Bruckner’s First and Third Masses bear the distinct signatures of the symphonies all over the place, you have to listen hard to find streaks of his sound in the Second Mass, with its backing by a small wind band and throwbacks to the choral styles of the Renaissance.
The piece sounds as if it was tailored to the acoustics of a cathedral; some of the wind timbres even seem to imitate certain stops on a pipe organ. A cathedral Disney Hall is not, yet Gershon’s fast tempos were appropriate for this less-reverberant space, as was the Master Chorale’s fresh, bright, plush, not-at-all-ascetic singing.
The Master Chorale is no stranger to “Symphony of Psalms” -– this was the piece the chorale memorably sang at Esa-Pekka Salonen’s farewell concert here in 2009 -– and Gershon carried out another inventive programming scheme by prefacing Stravinsky with a brief, luminous a cappella Bruckner motet, also set to a psalm text, “Os justi.”
Yet this performance (of the Stravinsky) could not quite generate the cool yet paradoxically emotional fervor of the sequence of magically heartfelt, dense chords near the close of Part 3. Gershon tried, slowing the tempo down as marked to let the passage breathe, but it didn’t work.
-– Richard S. Ginell
2010 photo of Grant Gershon and the Master Chorale. Credit: Lee Salem Photography
It would be tempting to say that having two contemporary works anchoring the Los Angeles Master Chorale concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall Sunday night was a bold bit of chance-taking by Grant Gershon.
But then, maybe not.
David Lang’s “The Little Match Girl Passion” has caught on almost everywhere since winning the 2008 Pulitzer Prize; Jacaranda presented the West Coast premiere of the four-voice version in January; the Pacific Chorale did the choral version in April; and performances proliferate on YouTube.
James Newton, whose Mass received its U.S. premiere Sunday, is a welcome regular presence with the Master Chorale. (A recording of the four-voice version with Gershon and the concert’s vocal soloists was released in March.)
On Sunday evening, the Los Angeles Master Chorale under Grant Gershon opened its 48th season at Walt Disney Concert Hall with a program exploring aspects of earthly life and eternity. Six a cappella works by living composers made up the concert's first half. They complemented and contrasted with Morten Lauridsen’s magisterial five-movement quasi-Requiem and celebration of light, “Lux Aeterna," performed after intermission.
The concert began with the U.S. premiere of Thomas Jennefelt’s “Music for a Big Church; for tranquility,” composed 20 years ago. This lovely, wordless sequence of mesmerizing vocal patterns sung in a “na-na” vocalise was given a shimmering minimalist vibe by Gershon and the choir. They also effortlessly illuminated the wide vocal palette of Eric Whitacre’s “Her Sacred Spirit Soars” for double chorus.
The choir’s associate conductor, Lesley Leighton, led Tarik O’Regan’s darker “Tal vez tenemos tiempo” (“Maybe we have time”), a resonant setting of Pablo Neruda’s poem. (Gershon conducted everything else.) Leighton, a longtime singer with the choir, then joined the chorale for “Heavenly Home: Three American Songs,” arranged with mastery by Shawn Kirchner. A veteran member of the ensemble’s tenor section, Kirchner uses American folk sources for “Unclouded Day,” “Angel Band” and “Hallelujah.” The choir conveyed the spirit of each with impressive phrasing and dynamic control.
The Master Chorale gave the premiere of Lauridsen’s “Lux Aeterna” in 1997, and the half-hour piece has since grown in stature. In a pre-concert talk, Lauridsen said the work represents “the triumph of light over darkness.” It’s also a luminously intimate and personal score. It was written while Lauridsen was the choir's composer-in-residence and partly reflects a healthy consolatory grief he felt after the loss of his mother. He turned those feelings into transporting art. While some might miss the orchestral version’s grandeur and scope, this arrangement for choir and organ, with Paul Meier at the console, brought greater prominence to the score’s hypnotic vocal blend and radiant spiritual beauty. The choir's purity of sound conjured a timeless quality. It felt like only five minutes had passed. During the concluding Agnus Dei, many members of the choir began to sway individually, apparently in their own meditative space.
The sold-out audience maintained total silence until well after the final Amen, and stood as Lauridsen came to the stage. There was a great roar when the choir stood.
-- Rick Schultz
Above: Morten Lauridsen in a 2005 photo. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times
Normally, Bramwell Tovey is the most incorrigibly witty of Hollywood Bowl hosts, but on this given Tuesday night, he was absolutely serious. It was only two days after the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and Tovey had designed and dedicated an all-choral/orchestral program that, he said, was in remembrance of “those whose lives 10 years ago were brutally cut short.”
This coupling of the classic and the contemporary -- Mozart’s unfinished Requiem and Leonard Bernstein’s marvelous “Chichester Psalms” -- would have been an inspired one regardless of the occasion. What’s interesting about both pieces is that they end with more or less the same music that can be heard in their beginnings -- which in itself is a poignant statement about the renewal of life after a catastrophe.
Bernstein spent a good deal of his 1965 sabbatical from the New York Philharmonic toying with 12-tone experiments before abandoning them in favor of this unapologetically tonal, joyful, if not completely untroubled, setting of six Psalms. In some ways, it is a microcosm of several aspects of his personality: the snazzy, extroverted Lenny of Broadway; the classically trained Great Communicator of color and form; the earnest Jewish intellectual working through a perceived crisis of faith; the fervent crusader for world peace.
“Chichester Psalms” survived the polemic wars of its time and has received many recordings, but its tricky rhythms probably limit the number of live performances it gets. Luckily, we got a good one at the Bowl from Tovey, shaped much along the lines of Bernstein’s own tempos.
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos returned to the Hollywood Bowl Thursday night. The imposing crowd of nearly 12,000 was double the size of that for the Spanish conductor’s Tuesday night concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic of music by Manuel da Falla and Berlioz. It could be that word got out about what a fine concert Tuesday’s was. But the real draw was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
The Ninth is a symphony of rebirth. It serves well for occasions of hellos and goodbyes. Two years ago, Gustavo Dudamel chose it for his free concert at the Bowl, turning his first appearance as the L.A. Philharmonic music director into a civic event. Later this month, Lorin Maazel will close the Boston Symphony’s Tanglewood season with the Ninth. On Sept. 7, Kent Nagano will inaugurate a long-awaited new concert hall in Montreal with this 70-minute choral symphony. Ninths on Dec. 31 have become a traditional Japanese way to meet the new year.
No special occasion marked a midsummer Thursday in Hollywood. But we find ourselves ever fretting about our uncertain world, and spiritual renewal, the kind for which Beethoven had an incomparable gift, is more need than luxury. The Ninth is, at the Bowl, a communion (at least for those willing to part for an hour with their smart phones).
The symphony begins in the void and builds into a celebrated call for brotherhood. If the performance is at all worthy, it leaves you with a palpable sense of promise. Frühbeck’s performance, which included four soaring young vocal soloists and the Los Angeles Master Chorale, was most worthy.
"Carmaggedon," schmarmaggedon. The freeways flowed Sunday evening. And if the turnout for “Turandot,” Gustavo Dudamel’s Hollywood Bowl night at the opera this summer, was less than the 13,000 who came for his “Carmen” last year, a crowd of 9,254 is still a healthy box-office figure.
Those of you who stayed home to make the trip easier for the rest of us, you missed a wild and wonderfully old-fashioned night of over-the-top opera. But thank you, and here’s your reward: KUSC will broadcast the performance on Aug. 13 at 2 p.m. Mark your calendars.
This was Dudamel’s first time conducting Puccini’s final opera. It was also the first Turandot for the warm and glorious Wagnerian and Straussian soprano Christine Brewer, to try out the role of the ice princess.
There were "Turandot" veterans as well. The Korean soprano Hei-Kyung Hong had been Liù in the Los Angeles Opera production of “Turandot” in 2002 and sang the role of the slave girl again two years later in a concert performance by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in the amphitheater. Tenor Frank Porretta, who appeared as Calaf in a “Turandot” at Opera Pacific in 2004, was asked to fill in for Francesco Hong, indisposed with laryngitis.
But mainly the attention was on Dudamel. Last summer, the rumor was that he was being groomed to become the next music director of La Scala. Now the rumor is that negotiations are taking place in Milan. An editorial in the June issue of the influential British magazine Opera called the prospect of a 30-year-old Venezuelan with limited opera experience at the iconic Italian opera house desperate and cynical. “For the sake of La Scala and … Dudamel himself, let’s hope that both sides will come to their senses,” John Allison concludes his tirade.
Music review: Los Angeles Master Chorale, 'Ellington: Best of the Sacred Concerts' at Walt Disney Concert Hall
Obviously Ellington’s deep religious faith drives these patchworks of then-newly composed pieces and assorted liftings from his past. But what the term “sacred” doesn’t convey is the showbiz pizazz and shafts of emotion that these concerts generate –- and you don’t have to be religious to feel it.
Grant Gershon, co-conductor/jazz-meister James Newton and the Los Angeles Master Chorale mounted an Ellington Sacred Concert in 2004 during the master chorale’s first season in Walt Disney Concert Hall. It was a rousing success, approaching and in some cases actually surpassing the standard that Ellington’s own performances set -- which is supposed to be impossible. Sunday night, they did another one to close Gershon’s 10th anniversary season -- and it was every bit as terrific as the first.
The 2011 concert was almost a replay of the 2004 one -- the same pieces from Ellington’s first two Sacred Concerts in the same order, with “23rd Psalm” swapped for “The Majesty of God” and “The Lord’s Prayer” from the third Sacred Concert, a more-than-fair trade. Most of the players from Newton’s big band in 2004 were back -- including, crucially, the great grooving drummer Ndugu Chancler -- and while no present-day group can replicate the idiosyncratic sounds of a Cat Anderson, a Johnny Hodges, a Harry Carney, etc., this band played with a wild abandon of its own that evoked the Ellington ethos without imitating it.
Tap dancer Channing Cook Holmes returned to electrify the house in Ellington’s ingenious concerto for tap dancer, “David Danced Before the Lord With All His Might.” Singer Carmen Lundy soulfully drew out “Come Sunday,” which uses the same tune as “David.”
Yet the decisive element in this hall-rocking re-creation was the Master Chorale, a chorus with a depth and richness that Ellington never had at his disposal. These voices had the power to transform, illuminating inner harmonies in “Something 'Bout Believing” that could only be guessed at from Ellington’s recording, while swinging mightily with the band. It was spine-tingling.
-- Richard S. Ginell
Above: Vocalist Darius de Haas, accompanied by a jazz orchestra and the Los Angeles Master Chorale, sings Ellington at Disney Hall. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times
The Los Angeles Master Chorale announced Thursday that Terry Knowles has been named as the organization's new president and chief executive officer. Knowles has served as the Master Chorale's executive director since 2000.
The Master Chorale's board of directors voted unanimously to promote Knowles into the new position, Chairman Mark Foster said. Prior to the promotion, Foster also served as CEO, with board member Scott Sanford serving as president. Sanford stepped down from the board about two years ago and the post was then left vacant. The organization later restructured to create the position of president and CEO.
During Knowles' tenure as executive director, the Master Chorale said it has increased its operating budget by 75%, to $3.7 million.
In 2010, the group kicked off a partnership with the recording label Decca, with a new Nico Muhly album. "A Good Understanding" was released in September. In November, the Master Chorale extended its contract with music director Grant Gershon through the 2014-15 season. The organization will celebrate its 50th anniversary during the 2013-14 season.
-- David Ng
Photo (top): Terry Knowles. Credit: Steve Rogers
Photo (bottom): Violinist Jennifer Koh and conductor Grant Gershon with the Los Angeles Master Chorale at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times