Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Los Angeles Master Chorale sings American Songs & Spirituals

By Douglas Neslund

The late George Bragg taught his choristers, “When you perform, the audience must never see the struggle. Only the love must show.”

Showing nothing but love in choral performance is such a high bar that few organizations can achieve it with consistency. Choral perfection is also marked by an absence of ego in which the performer calls attention to him/herself, thereby distracting the audience from noticing musical or technical errors.

The ideal choral collective must love to sing, to create sound together, and willingly and joyfully to give themselves over to their director. They must have overcome vocal technical difficulties, and they must know their music and its style so that when given the downbeat, they can produce creative chords in ensemble. So in the end, it is love that brings a choir to that exalted place in which perfection may be accomplished.

Choral perfection was offered to an excited audience moved by wondrous music of composers from this country at Walt Disney Concert Hall by the Los Angeles Master Chorale and its veteran, iconic conductor of twelve seasons, Grant Gershon.

“American Songs & Spirituals” encompassed “Sure on this Shining Night” of Samuel Barber; “Songs of Smaller Creatures,” a clever work featuring bees, spiders/Souls and butterflies to lyrics by Walter de la Mare, Walt Whitman and Charles Swinburne, respectively, by Abbie Betinis; and “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven,” a satirical accounting of the founder of the Salvation Army’s arrival at the gates of Heaven by the inimitable insurance salesman, Charles Ives.

And then came a world premiere performance of a work not quite completed in time for this first hearing by the Chorale’s own Swan Family Composer in Residence, Shawn Kirchner, who took on the daunting challenges of poetry by the late Sylvia Plath.
Shawn Kirchner, center
 The entire seven movements (six of which were performed) are wide-ranging in subject matter: “Morning Song,” containing such language as “All night your moth-breath Flickers among the flat pink roses;” “Mirror,” that gives a realistic and humorous account of “the eye of the little god, four-cornered” but which takes a sudden dark turn in the form of a lake, into which a woman peers as she seeks to find forgiveness for having drowned a young girl; “Lady Lazarus,” a horrific account by a deceased Jewish woman in the wake of Nazi concentration camp dehumanization and murder, in which she says, “Dying is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well;” “Poppies in October” contains a sentiment that triggered Mr. Kirchner’s interest in Ms. Plath’s writings: “Oh my God, what am I (t)hat these late mouths should cry open In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers;” “Child” that begins, “Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing;” and “Blackberrying” that depicts a stroll across grassy hills, finding an occasional bee-occupied blackberry bush, and continuing on toward the sea and its infinite view and crashing surf. (The yet-to-be completed “Tulips” will be included in future performances.) Mr. Kirchner’s exceptional arranging skills have been displayed frequently over the past 12 seasons of his association with the Chorale as a member of the tenor section. Most popular everywhere is his “Wana Baraka,” a Kenyan folksong. In the performance of “Plath Songs” Mr. Kirchner accompanied at the piano, with the excellent Theresa Dimond assisting on percussion.

After intermission, the 46 gentlemen of the Master Chorale took the stage to perform Elliott Carter’s “Tarantella” with sizzling tone in this paean of praise to the “Mother of Flowers” and bacchanal joys of Spring, accompanied by Mr. Kirchner and the wonderful Lisa Edwards. At a polar mood opposite, the Master Chorale performed Samuel Barber’s own choral version (“Agnus Dei”) of his well-known Adagio for Strings, over-conducted by associate conductor Lesley Leighton, with Karen Hogle Brown providing the stratospherics.

Arguably the most impressionable work of the evening was Eric Whitacre’s “Three Songs of Faith.” The three movements with lyrics by e.e. cummings, “i will wade out,” “hope, faith, life, love …” and “i thank you God for most this amazing day” are incredible choral works. The most magical moment comes on the last word of the first movement, “moon” in which the composer conjures a choral web of sound that both astounds and delights in kaleidoscopic wonder, brilliantly performed by the Master Chorale. It is no wonder that Mr. Whitacre’s compositions are widely performed and loved.

The concluding portion of the concert featured “Ain-a That Good News” arranged by William Dawson, “Hold On!” by Jester Hairston, “Keep Your Lamps!” arranged by André Thomas, and “The Battle of Jericho” arranged by Moses Hogan. This quartet of Spirituals got the audience really rocking with infectious rhythms and joyful singing that openly displayed the love that was reflected throughout Walt Disney Concert Hall. “Shenandoah” in the familiar beautiful arrangement by James Erb was the encore to the concert and the season.


An annual rite of passage for the Chorale at the end of every season is the farewell “thank you” to departing choristers. In descending order of service, this year’s “good-byes and best wishes” are showered upon Holly Shaw Price for her outstanding 27 years of Master Chorale performances; Steven Fraider and Dominic MacAller for their 18 years; Mary Bailey for her 17; Susan Mills for her 15; Carrie Dike, 6 years; Drew Holt, 5 years; Ed Nepomuceno, 4 years; and Duke Rausavljevich, one year.

Photo credits: petersmusinews.com, Lee Salem

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