Monday, December 9, 2013

Christmas at the Los Angeles Master Chorale

By Douglas Neslund

With the mighty Bach B-Minor Mass coming in January, one notices not a single measure on this evening’s menu from the Baroque period. Yet the music at hand is hardly of palette clearing value, but solid courses of late Romantic and mid-20th century holiday season genré. On this occasion, the Los Angeles Master Chorale was in top form heading into a couple of weeks where even the most committed choristers might be forgiven if they might sound a bit tired.

Maestro Grant Gershon opened the evening with four of Nine Carols for Male Voices by Ralph Vaughn-Williams. Hearing the men sing alone is undeniably thrilling, especially the Mummers’ Carol, and extra special with this group of talented, intelligent and committed singers.

While the stage was being reset to accommodate a chamber group of woodwinds and piano 4-hand, Maestro Gershon introduced Ottorino Respighi’s Lauda per la Nativita del Signore, featuring an outstanding solo trio of Master Chorale members Hayden Eberhart in the “role” of L’Angelo, Daniel Cheney as Pastore, and Janelle DeStefano as Maria. As naïve as the text may be, Respighi’s orchestration and choral writing is exceptionally fresh-sounding and agreeable. Ms. Eberhart’s angelic voice was particularly well appointed for her role, as she effortlessly floated stratospheric tones with pure and impressive result. Ms. DeStefano was a properly chaste and gentle Mary, but it was likely Mr. Cheney who stole the show, not so much for his role playing, but for the fact he was returning to us having survived a nearly lethal encounter with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma over much of the summer and fall. His voice has acquired a deeper layer of soul to add to his usual brilliant high range. While role of shepherd asked him to represent those so humble they didn’t wish to sully the Infant Jesus by touch, Mr. Cheney imparted that, and much more. Many in the audience shouted bravos at the solo trio as they enjoyed multiple bows.

The women of the Master Chorale got their turn after intermission with another welcome salute to the centenary of composer Benjamin Britten via his “A Ceremony of Carols” written during a hazardous voyage across the U-Boot infested Atlantic. Written in three-parts for treble voices, one is most familiar through many recordings by various boys’ choirs in America and England. The initial performance was given by an English women’s choir, and for reasons not entirely clear, the initial recording conducted by Britten himself used the Copenhagen Boys Choir, instead of one of the excellent English collegiate or chapel choirs.

When it was Kings College Choir’s opportunity to record the work, Choirmaster David Willcocks approached the composer and among other performance-related questions, asked how Britten would prefer the ancient English texts to be sung. Britten said that choirs should sing it so that audiences could understand as much of it as possible. The reviewer worked with Sir David during choral workshops for more than ten years, employing his own choir as exemplars. Sir David related this information directly.

And yet, the occasional choir will attempt to find a way to sing the work “in the language of the time.” The primary problem with that attempt is, simply, nobody alive today knows how the language was pronounced in olden times. A best guess is the result, for better or for worse.

Lesley Leighton
Associate Master Chorale Conductor Lesley Leighton opted to choose the old English approximation that often distorts an understanding of the wonderful poetry. But in whatever language, the women sang gloriously, with articulation seldom heard in the roulades of “Wolcum Yole!” and the long descending lines of “In Freezing Winter Night” that challenge any choir’s breath control. Soprano Claire Fedoruk and mezzo soprano Drea Pressley both suffered momentary technical lapses in their “Spring Carol” duet. Ms. Leighton continues to conduct with a style more appropriate for a chorus of thousands, as though attempting to impress. “Ceremony” doesn’t require lots of arm waving. Harpist JoAnn Turovsky was well appreciated after her deliberate, introspective “Interlude” solo.

Stephen Paulus’s “Christmas Dances” comes assembled in four sections: Break Forth, Methinks I hear the Heavins <sic> Resound, The Nativity of Our Lord, and On the Nativity of Our Savior. The music varies widely while employing a rich variety of forces. Mr. Paulus suffered a major stroke during the summer past, and is still comatose.

Encores included a very witty John Rutter version of “Deck the Halls” followed by a schmaltzy “White Christmas” (yes, the Master Chorale can sing schmaltz!) and concluding with Maestro Gershon abdicating the podium to stand amidst his singers while warbling “We Wish You a Merry Christmas!”

Photos courtesy of David Johnston and from Wikipedia sources

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