Monday, June 9, 2014

Los Angeles Master Chorale Wraps Season 50

By Douglas Neslund

The final concert of the season in most musical organizations is usually regarded by most as lighter, less formal, even a bit frothy. Some might include something of a fashion show above and beyond the memo’s instruction to “wear something black.” It’s a chance for the leadership to thank patrons and invite them back for the Fall season to come, and perhaps more wistfully, a chance to thank departing members for their contributions.

The Los Angeles Master Chorale’s final concert of the 2013-2014 season, the organization’s Fiftieth Jubilee year, was no different, except in one regard: the quality and gravitas of the musical items on the menu reflected a serious affirmation of Artistic Director Grant Gershon’s determination to bring newly minted choral works to the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage.

The concert opened with what might have been the best of the evening’s five works, Shawn Kirchner’s Inscapes suite, set to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889). In the preconcert lecture, Mr. Kirchner disclosed that he chose a sonata form, traditionally understood to be: allegro, scherzo, andante, allegro and four of Hopkin’s poems to match.

The initial movement could be subtitled “Young People’s Guide to the Professional Choir” and could not have better underwritten Maestro Gershon’s introductory remark that Kirchner writes, unlike most composers, from the middle (the inner voices) of the choir outward, creating a choral tapestry. Exactly so. No dynamic was ignored, no tessitura boundaries unexplored. His generous reliance on major-minor harmonies makes Kirchner’s color palette accessible to a wider range of audiences, although few choruses could replicate the deliciously exquisite performance heard in Disney Hall, including beautifully sung solo work by sopranos Suzanne Waters and Elyse Willis.

Shawn Kirchner 
The second movement began in a most precarious and exposed above-the-staff series of pianissimo notes that formed a theme shared throughout the choir, a playful episode that set the scene for the dark, elegiac Binsley Poplars, the poet’s mournful reaction to the destruction of trees nearby his Oxford home.

“As kingfisher’s catch fire” returns mood and tempo to the lighter side, once again testing the Master Chorale’s limitless skills with the knowing hand of a true craftsman.

A close second in quality of composition was another world premiere, this time on a commission to Esa-Pekka Salonen paid by Master Chorale members to celebrate LAMC’s Golden Jubilee. The composer chose to set the final stanzas of Dante’s Paradiso from his epic Divina Commedia, commenting that what lies above the “god” concept in the universe is Love. The iPad Air-equipped Salonen uses Dante’s formal structure to excellent effect, with “Iri da iri,” a chant-like musical theme passed around the choir, with the remaining choristers forming a thick wall of vocal miasma as a downstage curtain, a highly effective choral deployment. The Master Chorale commissioners got excellent value for their money.

In between the Kirchner and Salonon bookends were works of two other composers with a strong ethnic flavor: Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Los Cantores de las Montañas and Francisco Nuñez’s “Es Tu Tiempo.” Ms. Frank’s composition consisted of six vignettes first performed by the Master Chorale two seasons ago, each in the style of the people and using their instruments: two guitars, bongos, piano and bamboo flutes from the gruppo Huayucaltia conducted by LAMC Associate Conductor Lesley Leighton. Eight Master Chorale soloists punctuated the vignettes with excellent tone and a clear delivery of their respective texts: sopranos Anna Schubert and Caroline McKenzie; mezzo sopranos Callista Hoffman-Campbell and Tracy Van Fleet; tenors Brandon Hynum and Bradley Chapman; and bass Gregory Geiger. Particularly effective was bass Ryan Villaverde, both as singer and narrator.

New York’s own Francisco Nuñez was blessed to use the honor choristers of the recent Master Chorale High School Choral Festival, singing side by side with Master  Chorale members, and with instrumental accompaniment by students from the Ramón C. Cortines High School of Visual and Performing Arts. These students will never forget this unique opportunity to fulfill one of the Master Chorale's primary missions.

Francisco Nuñez
Mr. Nuñez both conducted and danced, and implored the unfortunately non-capacity audience to clap along on the chorus reprise. Since every other event in this gala concert season sported a full house, it was a surprise to see virtually no one sitting in the highest balcony, and plenty of fabric to be seen all throughout Disney Hall. The timing of this concert coming after schools closed for the summer doubtlessly had much to do with this.

Finally, just before intermission, another world premiere: David Lang’s “the national anthems” utilizing a chamber choir drawn from the Master Chorale and the excellent Calder Quartet. Really fine solo singing from soprano Zanaida Robles and mezzo soprano Adriana Manfredi helped to alleviate the hypnotic and episodic minimalistic effects.

The old joke is that minimalists invent a theme and then photocopy pages of it in repetitious, ultimately boring stretches of ditto-ness. One must admire the persistence of conductor and performers when performing such a work. Thematically, the text is purported to be an amalgam of national anthems from around the world, utilizing snippets of text and stringing them along in as drama-absent a manner as possible. If the listener fancied hearing snippets of an actual national anthem, he or she would suffer ear strain. At least the Lang piece chugged along and finally stopped, unexpectedly. Coffee was served at intermission.

And we’re off to Season 51 come October. One might be tempted to think that Maestro Gershon’s preconcert promises of a new season of expanded vision, less standing in choral rows dressed in tuxes, but choreography? more expansive use of Disney Hall resources? Never fear … passion and rejuvenation are promised!

L>R: Francisco Nuñez, Shawn Kirchner, Gabriela Lena Frank, Grant Gershon


Master Chorale bids a fond farewell to six whose service has come full circle:

Samela Beasom, 29 years
Marnie Mosiman, 13 years
Greg Davies, 11 years
Wingate Greathouse, 6 years
Risa Larson, 6 years
Matthew Kellaway, 1 year

Photo credits: Patrick Brown, used by permission

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