Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Morten Lauridsen Love-In at Los Angeles Master Chorale

Professor Morten Lauridsen

By Douglas Neslund

It was a difficult evening for a critic to remain untouched by the waves of love for composer Morten Lauridsen showered from the rafters in a full house Walt Disney Concert Hall. Where a review is normally expected to produce a reportage cum opinion of the works performed, normal critical diffidence to extracurricular factors is expected to prevail.

On another level, the event might well have qualified as a celebration of the University of Southern California, its professorial excellence and a triumph of its graduates and postgraduates. The tribute itself was bestowed upon Professor Morten Lauridsen from a Master Chorale well-populated with USC grads and students, conducted by Grant Gershon, who as a student sang the premiere performance of Lauridsen’s “Mid-Winter Songs” as a member of the famous USC Chamber Choir, and who graduated from USC cum laude in 1985.

Lots of Trojans of all ages, including your friendly critic, peopled the audience as well. The University’s Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture, Dana Gioia, was honored, too, by a heartfelt composition by Lauridsen, a wonderful setting of Professor Gioia’s “Prayer,” a father’s request to a generic deity to watch over his first-born son, who died after only four months of life:

Professor Dana Gioia
Echo of the clock tower, footstep 
in the alleyway, sweep 
of the wind sifting the leaves.
Jeweller of the spiderweb, connoisseur 
of autumn’s opulence, blade of lightning
 harvesting the sky.

Keeper of the small gate, choreographer 
of entrances and exits, midnight
 whisper travelling the wires.

Seducer, healer, deity or thief, I will see you soon enough—
in the shadow of the rainfall, in the brief violet darkening at sunset—
but until then I pray watch over him 
as a mountain guards its covert ore

 and the harsh falcon its flightless young.

The framework for the evening is the music of Professor Lauridsen, who also teaches a class in composition at USC, having attended such a class by his predecessor in office, the esteemed Halsey Stevens, with whom this writer also studied. So, how to remain objective?

A sometimes jarring piece, “Lament for PasiphaĆ«,” the first of five “Mid-Winter Songs on Poems by Robert Graves,” (premiered by the USC Chamber Singers) featured jagged pianistic stabbings, albeit via superb piano solo work by Lisa Edwards. The five movements varied, with “She Tells Her Love While Half Asleep” and “Mid-Winter Waking” the most attractive and well-matched with the poetry. The Master Chorale’s brilliant enunciation, even at pianissimo, was exemplary, and phrase shaping was unmatched. This Chorale understands this composer and their conductor at the DNA level.

The gentlemen of the Master Chorale, featuring brief solos by tenors Shawn Kirchner and Matthew Brown, together with baritone Scott Graff and the redoubtable Theresa Dimond on the finger cymbals, performed “Ave Dulcissima Maria” which awakened faint reminders of Biber and Tavener (minus the Russian basses) in evoking an Orthodox chant-like theme.

Lauridsen dipped his pen into the bitter cup of grief at the death of Professor Stevens through the medium of a solo clarinet and chimes (“Canticle”), with brief words of condolence (“O Vos Omnes”) by the women of the Master Chorale. The soloist, Gary Bovyer, deployed his instrument in all possible ways, including several instances in which two notes (a fundament sounding simultaneously with its harmonic), created an other-worldly sound that tended to divert attention away from grief toward a sense of shuddering repulsion.  The pain was visceral. The primary content sounded like a chain of tone rows, with nothing resembling a melody. As an expression of grief, it works, dramatically.

“Nocturnes,” a suite of four movements putting music to the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, Pablo Neruda and James Agee, was premiered in 2005 by yet another member of the USC Trojan Family, Don Brinegar and his Don Brinegar Singers. On this occasion, the composer accompanied the Master Chorale at the keyboard on all but “Soneto de la Noche” (Neruda) where a keyboard would have intruded upon Neruda’s highly personal and delicate poetry of passion. The third item, “Sure On This Shining Night” (Agee) has been recorded and performed by the Master Chorale in previous seasons and is worthy of a return hearing.

The post-intermission selections were a little less daring in their sonic construction, but gained an equal portion in harmonies and melodies. “Madrigale: Six “Fire Songs” on Italian Renaissance Poems” (texts drawn from disparate sources) contain a wide range of emotions, including wit difficult to find elsewhere. As a leading element to the second half, the Madrigals were a pleasant palate freshener. Here the Master Chorale had to be pinpoint perfect in creating an ensemble that held together during Italian phrases sung at lightning speed. The reference to “Fire Songs” refers to Lauridsen’s use, in each of the six madrigals, of a chord that is not only special to him, but that has become his inspiration and “watermark.”

When casually tuning into KUSC-FM, and a Lauridsen composition happens to be playing, one recognizes almost instantly who the composer is, as the “fire chord” will likely be heard often. It’s his inspiration, his launching pad. A gadget, some would say. But “watermark” defines it better, as it may be reasoned that fellow musicians, in particular, would be able to catch the passing “fire chords.” If there is a downside to this persistent use in a full concert is something of a familiar annoyance to the ear. 

One other less significant watermark of a Lauridsen composition is reliance on basically harmonic chord structure relying on a lot of second and third inversions. After long minutes, one begins to yearn for a tonic in the bass, especially at cadences. Not that there aren’t any. Of course there are. But an entire evening of second and third inversions tends to want to make weary the friendliest ear.

The penultimate offering was the beautiful “Les Chansons des Roses” cycle, set to “Les Roses,” a cycle of poetry by Rilke, with the composer at the piano. The “hit tune” of the five songs is “Dirait-on,” revealing a beautiful melody that is a haunting earworm.

The ease at which Lauridsen writes in French and Italian is remarkable. In the preconcert “ListenUp!” talk with KUSC’s Alan Chapman and Maestro Gershon, the composer admitted that he speaks neither language. Maybe somewhere in the very distant past …
Maestro Grant Gershon
Perhaps lost in the details is the fact that an entire evening of lengthy pianissimos and delicate phrase-shaping can take its toll on the conductor, who never has a moment to relax and relish, but is challenged to make every moment of every phrase the living, breathing art that it is. Grant Gershon managed to do that, and brought his 48-member Master Chorale with him.

Music Director Emeritus Paul Salamunovich, who is still in a lengthy recovery from having contracted West Nile Virus last fall, was remembered with another performance of Lauridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium,” commissioned twenty years ago by Terry Knowles and Marshall Rutter. The work has been sung often in the intervening decades, and is performed by choirs far and wide.

The notable thing is how Maestro Gershon can make the piece sound like one is hearing it for the very first time, finding new micro-elements within the well-worn phrases to reveal a new facet here, and new inspiration there.

Fight on!

“Prayer” is reproduced by kind permission of the author.
Photographs copyrighted by Steve Cohn, Michael Stillwater, Russell Scoffin, or exist in the public domain.


Paul said...

minor correction - it's the USC Chamber Singers, who premiered both the Mid-Winter Songs and the Madrigali

Douglas Neslund said...

Thank you, Paul.