Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra at Ambassador Auditorium

By Douglas Neslund

Ambassador Auditorium is an odd bird – it is a church, but it used to be a concert hall. Or was it the other way around? It looks and has the feel of a concert hall, has been refurbished since its abandonment in bankruptcy by the Worldwide Church of God. It retains its handsome appearance and at least from a seat in the first one-third of the orchestra, its clear, unpretentious acoustical properties become apparent.

On Saturday night, it was Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s turn to perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s 1733 version of Magnificat in D major (BWV 243), with a little preview of his earlier Magnificat in Eb major (BWV 243a), in addition to a Magnificat setting by Orlando Di Lasso, a Gregorian chant on the title theme, and the Franz Schubert setting of “Deposuit potentes” as contrasting flavors to the main entrĂ©e on the evening’s menu.

First of all, those unfortunates who have never experienced an LACO performance will not understand aforehand that in context, “performance” means “lecture plus concert, plus post-concert Q&A.” And what a wonderful combination it was! Maestro Jeffrey Kahane is truly a master teacher, spending two-thirds of the evening explaining music and style to a Pasadena audience perhaps not entirely aware that they were in fact attending a master class.

The Chamber Orchestra, the University of Southern California Thornton Chamber Singers (prepared by Jo-Michael Scheibe), and five young but very professional soloists gave the master teacher perfunctory and absolutely sound studio perfect assistance. The care that was obviously taken to demonstrate what Bach (as well as the other composers) did with the text of the Magnificat and why, was riveting. For instance, we heard a portion of the opening movement with strings only, a second time with strings and flutes, then again with strings, flutes and double-reeds, and finally a fourth time a tutti with trumpets and timpani. This allowed the audience to hear the wondrous layers of music that so often fail to be appreciated on their own terms.

The soloists for the evening were sopranos Charlotte Dobbs and Zanaida Robles (who also sang with the Chamber Singers), mezzo-soprano Janelle DeStefano, tenor Ben Bliss and baritone Daniel Armstrong. Ms. Dobbs is the only soloist not associated with a local university, having been born in Boston and educated at Julliard, Curtis and Yale. All sang with plangent tone and keen attention to the text. It could not have been easy for them to pop up and down during the various demonstrations, and yet have a full 30-minute performance after intermission, yet they handled the challenge with grace and supportive panache.

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra has performed the Magnificat on three prior occasions, first with second music director Gerard Schwartz and thereafter by guest conductors Thomas Somerville and John Alexander, but this evening was the first for Maestro Kahane with his wonderful band.

Superlatives do not do justice to the pure excellence and joy with which this ensemble plays. They virtually define the term “ensemble.” During the lecture portion of the evening, it would have been easy for a performer to forget an upcoming bit to play, but despite scattered, rapid requirements, no one missed an entrance, much less a beat. One could point to the fact that all LACO players are also session musicians, that is, they earn their livelihoods playing in recording sessions for movies, television and the like, but when they play as an ensemble, they are doing it with pure joy, and it shows.

Finally, just before intermission, Maestro Kahane, stepping off the podium toward the audience, related a very personal story that had to resonate with those in attendance who were Christians, including the Auditorium owners – a story of a man in dire need, and his own reaction in helping him. The master teacher said, “That is the meaning of ‘Esurientes implevit bonus’ (He has filled the hungry with good things).” In addition to his marvelous musical gifts, Jeffrey Kahane is a mensch.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Los Angeles Master Chorale Performs Massive Bruckner and Stravinsky

by Douglas Neslund

If you love your music full-born, delivered not in individual notes but in eight-part chords in a wall of glorious sound, then you were in hog’s heaven Sunday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall as our superlative Master Chorale performed Anton Bruckner’s expansive Mass No. 2 in E minor, and after intermission, his Os justi meditabitur sapientiam and Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms.

Seldom within recent memory has the Chorale lived in the fortissimo realm of dynamics quite as much as on this occasion. The singers were obviously relishing the opportunity, and the sound produced throughout was stunning, beautiful, balanced and well-blended. If there were a fly in the ointment, it would be Disney Hall’s tendency to add sizzle when the music exceeds a mere forte, which characteristic in chamber concerts might be desirable. One wonders if strategically placed hanging banners would help mitigate that sizzle, and deliver the pure, wondrous choral banquet we have grown to expect in the Grant Gershon era.

Bruckner’s Mass was composed within the ideals of the St. Cecelia Society concept of music serving the Eucharist, not the performers. Hence, no soloists were employed. Since the premiere of the work took place al fresco, he wrote instrumental parts for wind and brass, which were overwhelmed for the most part in the Master Chorale concert. Another characteristic of the Mass was Bruckner’s alternation or combining of women’s and men’s choruses. Thus, the opening Kyrie began softly in the women’s sections, a beautiful prelude to the same material in the men’s sections. Bruckner’s music is essentially homophonic, but his striking harmonic shifts betray the first impression of a Renaissance composer and reveal his true Romantic idiom and origin.

Bruckner’s Os justi – a familiar eight part a cappella chorus in the Lydian church mode, where the fourth step of the scale is raised one-half step – begins softly, but soon builds to a tremendous pile of glorious notes suffused with chain suspensions that create ongoing tension-release cycles as it melts back down to piano dynamic. This musical idea is repeated at the motet’s ending; a good idea merits repetition! But between these mountains Bruckner seems to have lost inspiration, as the music wanders aimlessly and without memorablity.

Maestro Gershon didn’t allow applause as the final sounds of Os justi disappeared, but launched immediately into Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, one of the composer’s most-performed works. Accompanied by a large contingent of brass, woodwinds and lower-voiced strings, as well as two pianos and timpani, the Master Chorale easily handled the syncopations and irregular entrances and at times almost appeared to be transformed into another instrumental element. There is never a moment in the three movement Symphony of Psalms where one senses that Stravinsky loses a tight focus and willing invention of new sound combinations. It was an altogether lovely performance, carefully and lovingly nurtured by Maestro Gershon.