By Douglas Neslund
They stood in a long row, all 25 of them, facing a sea of over 900 students - their students - to receive the thanks and appreciation for the hard work and study that brought them all together on this day late in April in the choral-friendly Walt Disney Concert Hall. The sound of appreciation drowned out the Concert Hall’s own pipe organ in decibels, threatening in volume all but the most expensive hearing aids of the volunteers and sponsors sitting in the back of the stage. Some teachers stood almost uncomprehending, while others basked in the glow of praise, but all proved once again the power of excellence and the discipline of music.
It was the 24th annual High School Choir Festival, sponsored by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and is an event that everyone should attend at least once in life. If you haven’t, you might begin to believe the daily drumroll of tragedy and atrocity that crowds out of the headlines the positive in life. Nothing could be more life-affirming and give hope for the future than to hear these high schoolers sing and yes, shout their joy.
Those in attendance heard music that reflected the best of music literature taught in the nation’s schools. Maestro Grant Gershon and the teachers chose nine items to perform together. The dead white composers (Brahms and Handel) came off the least best, while American Choral Directors Association-approved merchants of melody (and sometimes dissonance) fared much better, reflecting the inevitable churning of the generations. Items incorporating rhythm got the multitudes moving, urged on by Sidney Hopson’s percussive impulses. A living composer, Georgia Stitt, was on hand to hear her “The Promise of Light” performed. Silliness, in the form of Meredith Monk’s “Panda Chant II,” bespoke her Oaktown hippie-ness, which failed to mesh much with the rest of the program, but … whatever. Maestro Gershon enjoyed providing a goat's bleat or two.
Louise Thomas provided piano accompaniment that, from behind the stage, sounded weak and was in fact greatly unbalanced; it didn’t matter to the singers who were so well prepared, they could have sung with or without keyboard collaboration.
John West allowed the Walt Disney Concert Hall organ to drown out the Handel Chandos Anthem that brought the event to a rousing conclusion, although nothing was going to dampen the musical enthusiasm and truly renewable energy of the assembled choristers. This was their day communally to bathe in the choral art form, and their teachers’ day to bask in the rich rewards of their annual Sisyphus-like task.
Before lunch, sixteen members of the Master Chorale performed for the students under the direction of associate conductor Lesley Leighton. After a wonderfully phrase-shaped, perfectly balanced and blended “Always Singing” by Dale Warland, the music fare returned to the lighter side, matching the afternoon’s selections. The best of all was Eric Whitacre’s “Little Man in a Hurry” brilliantly sung by the Chamber Singers and accompanied at the keyboard by the equally brilliant Lisa Edwards. Whitacre’s “Little Birds” would have equaled “Little Man” but for writing the piano part over and obscuring the voices in the latter. Chen Yi’s version of “Sakura” was strangely mournful. A “world premiere” turned out to be “Yama No Mizu” by Lauren McLaren, commissioned by Ms. Leighton. Wonderful singing, as always.
Perhaps the high schoolers would have benefitted from hearing the timeless music of dead white composers coming from the experts in order to appreciate them for their enduring brilliance, but there is so much to appreciate, and so little time. John West treated all to a demonstration of the pipe organ setting up lunch.
Photo credits: Craig Schwartz
Photo credits: Craig Schwartz