Monday, December 10, 2012

Los Angeles Children’s Chorus in concert

by Douglas Neslund

First time attendees at Los Angeles Children's Chorus’s annual winter program Dec. 9 might have expected to hear “O Little Town of Bethlehem” or “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”. But this was not your usual Christmas concert. The event was the first of two “winter concerts” given the amalgamated title of “Confluence,” which the programme defined as “repertoire from many genres, traditions, periods and perspectives.”

Since there are too many personnel elements within LACC to crowd into just one concert, they are split into two. The first event presented the Apprentice Choir of 64 children, the Concert Choir of 93, minus the 16 Chamber Singers, who are drawn from the Concert Choir. The second event will be held on Dec. 16, and will present the Intermediate Choir of 71 children, the Young Men’s Ensemble of 31 changing and changed voices, and the Concert Choir. I’ll do the math: a grand total of 259 members.

All the organization and hard work to bring these concerts to a successful conclusion begins with Artistic Director Anne Tomlinson, who succeeded Chorus founder Rebecca Thompson in 1996. A woman of boundless energy, Ms. Tomlinson is supported by Mandy Brigham, Associate Artistic Director, Diana Landis, Apprentice Choir Director, and Steven Kronauer, Young Men’s Ensemble Director, plus many dozens of parents and friends, not to mention 24 others teaching musicianship and working behind the scenes. 

Arriving an hour early in order to gain a scarce parking place, this writer observed the beehive-like organization of many volunteers, each with a specific duty in setting up and carrying off the myriad duties to ensure a fluid event. In that regard, all were entirely successful.

With so many singers to populate the Pasadena Presbyterian Church’s somewhat limited space, the ingress and egress of the choirs throughout the evening was a wonder of organization.

The concert began with a welcoming speech by chorister Michelle Balian, which was followed by the combined choirs in King Henry VIII’s setting of “Sing We Joy” posthumously arranged by Louie Ramos. The date of composition was said to be 1513, when the king was but 22. A Christmas song? No, a song to celebrate good company and good times, and in this performance, with stylistic accompaniment provided by Bill Schmidt (organ) Inga Funck (recorder) and Bruce Carver (drum).

The Apprentice Choir, accompanied on the piano by Mitsuko Morikawa, provided the next six numbers in either unison or two-parts: “Jesus, bleibet meine Freude” (J.S. Bach), “Velvet Shoes” and “Solstice” (Randall Thompson), “Fuyu No Uta” (a Japanese folk song about falling snow), “Seal Lullaby” from The Second Jungle Book (Ruth Boshkoff) and “Hine Ma Tov” (Allan Naplan). All of the above were cleanly and clearly sung with an admirable unison in the first three items – true unisons with so many singers is not an easy goal. The two Thompson items are delights deserving to be heard more often.

Next up were the young women of the Chamber Singers in Benjamin Britten’s Missa brevis in D, written for the boy choristers of Westminster Cathedral in 1959 to mark and honor the retirement of their choirmaster, George Malcolm. This ensemble displayed what happens when children grow into young adults, with much greater maturity of voice, and additional tone colors and clearer enunciation of the text.  Ms. Tomlinson’s choice of flattening out the “eh” vowel of the Greek and Latin text tended to dilute the vowel color and tone focus, however. And one could wish for a more angular melodic line in the “Kyrie eleison” as indicated by the composer. Excellent soloists in the Benedictus were Yulan Lin and Isabella Ramos. Bill Schmidt accompanied brilliantly on the pipe organ.

The Chamber Singers continued with contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan’s setting of “Dutch Carol” – the first truly Christmas offering of the evening that celebrated the birth of Jesus while allowing pianistic themes to hint at His eventual crucifixion, with excellent accompaniment by Twyla Meyer. To conclude, the audience was treated to “Gaude virgo gratiosa”, from Samuel Gordon’s Ladymass, a tribute to the Virgin Mary.

The Concert Choir took their turn, reprising Sir David Willcock’s setting of “Psalm 150”, which the children sang in October in Walt Disney Concert Hall as guest artists of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. In that venue, the children’s voices sounded lost in the much larger space, but here, in their home, even with its quirky acoustical characteristics, we were treated to an entirely more enjoyable reading.  Ola Gjeilo’s setting of “Ubi caritas” is a beautiful treble 5- or 6-part composition that for once didn’t use the Duruflé-familiar antiphon’s Gregorian cantus firmus, but developed a devotion appropriate to its use on Maundy Thursday in the Christian calendar. Francis Poulenc’s 3-part “Le Chien Perdu” (The Lost Dog) from his Petites Voix collection required use of the French language and its unique qualities and sound.

“He Came Down,” a Christmas carol from Cameroon arranged by Nancy Grundahl, and sung with appropriate movement, lit up faces all throughout the choir and audience. Premiered in 1992, Conrad Sousa's series called Carols and Lullabies, the sixth of which is entitled “En Belén tocan a fuego” (There’s a fire in Bethlehem) is the composer's attempt to write a Southwestern equivalent to Britten's iconic "A Ceremony of Carols." Accompanied by Mr. Carver (marimba), Mr. Berry (guitar) and harpist Maria Casale, the Castilian-originated carol was highlighted with a beautifully-sung solo by chorister Qaasimah Alexis, perhaps the best singing of the evening.

All hands were on deck for two final works: “Al Shlosha D’Varim” by Allan Naplan that claims there are only three things that sustain the world: truth, justice and peace. Were it only so.

A reflection of the visit last spring of the South African Drakensberg Boys Choir, and the recent visit by LACC to that choir, “Singabahambayo” (On earth an army is marching), is a tribute in song to celebrate the end of apartheid in that country, and the ideal “Each day our friendship is growing” among the peoples of that country.

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