By Douglas Neslund
As wonderful as our Maestro Grant Gershon and his Master Chorale and Orchestra are on a regular basis, once in awhile they surpass their own excellence and enter into that rare, ephemeral sphere of ecstasy-inducing performance that is so difficult to describe. You had to be there, and fortunately for those who go to the Walt Disney Concert Hall tomorrow evening, you will have the chance to understand and feel their reverence for two beautiful compositions: the iconic Brahms German Requiem, and a similarly-themed composition by Peter Lieberson (1946-2011) that opened the concert, “The World in Flower."
In Saturday’s matinee before a nearly full Hall, where so often one would not be surprised with other music ensembles to hear a bit of throat-clearing and some level of sight-singing in preparation for the following “real” concert, such a stray thought was quickly banished. Each chorister, each orchestra member, and three stellar soloists were moved to such a degree, one could literally feel their shared ecstasy. They sang and played as one, a cooperative whole whose ethos deeply impressed those in attendance. And of course, all of that has a fountainhead: the utter commitment of their director, Maestro Gershon.
For some, Ein deutsches Requiem of Johannes Brahms is a relic of old hat, full blown German Romanticism, and it is that. And it can be performed minus the careful preparation that banishes technical difficulties and prepares the way for a performance such as one heard this afternoon. But it was clear that Maestro Gershon would not have it any other way short of perfection. He brought the sometimes dusty work to life, finding revelatory musical gems within the choral and orchestral score, and in so doing, revealing fresh facets of the music. Movement after movement, that extra-special feeling passed from one to another in a finely-woven, beautiful tapestry.
Two soloists added their vocal blessings in the Brahms: Brian Mulligan, baritone and Hayden Eberhart, lyric soprano. Mr. Mulligan has a wonderfully musical instrument, together with a sense of phrasing and text delivery that is just right. His ample voice filled Disney Hall in his four arias, not an easy task as others in the past have discovered. But to do so without pushing the voice approaches the extraordinary. Ms. Eberhart (replacing an indisposed Yulia Van Doren) sang the angelic “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit” with an achingly sweet voice. The Master Chorus and Orchestra were simply perfection. When finally the last chord dissipated into the Hall, the perfect silence lasted for long seconds before the audience could dare to express themselves in loud applause. Magic.
English translations of both compositions were projected on a screen high overhead. This was especially helpful in the opening item, Mr. Lieberson’s “The World in Flower,” a work of ten movements with instrumental prelude, which utilizes no fewer than 11 text sources celebrating life, love and death, including a traditional Navajo poem, works by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Nobel Prize winning poet Pablo Neruda, and the Bible, among others. Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, the piece is essentially post-Romantic, but with many Romantic-era references, eschewing dissonance for dissonance sake, and employing a mezzo soprano soloist, in this case, Kelley O’Connor, whose radiant voice matched Mr. Mulligan’s in size and beauty.