Monday, March 9, 2015

LA Master Chorale and Chamber Choir perform two world premieres

By Douglas Neslund

If you are an aficionado of beautiful and sometimes breathtaking choral music, and were fortunate to be in attendance at Walt Disney Concert Hall Sunday evening, you were in high clover.

Besides our world-best Los Angeles Master Chorale, we were treated with a second choir of excellence, Chung Uk Lee’s Los Angeles Chamber Choir, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary. More on this Korean-American ensemble later.

Virtually nothing choral dazzles more than Eric Whitacre’s “Her Sacred Spirit Soars” out of the throats of 112 Master Chorale singers and Maestro Grant Gershon’s leadership. A musical flower that opens and closes is the visual that might accompany this beautiful work dedicated to Saint Cecelia, the patron of music. From a simple third interval that expands and grows and envelopes and surrounds an audience, only to dissolve itself back to that simple third interval, and that, again and again. No dynamic is left out. No note within human vocal range is overlooked. But it is the exquisite tapestry wrought by an American (now living in London) that is so awesome when sung by these professional musicians.

Johannes Brahms might have suffered just a bit by comparison as one journeyed back through time to the Late Romantic, and that, in the hands of a master choral composer enamored with formula counterpoint so well spun, one scarcely noticed. Prior to the downbeat, Maestro Gershon had alerted the audience to the final “Amen” as truly inspired, and it was. One of the movements of the Brahms’ Fest- und Gedenkspr├╝che (Opus 109) dealt with the issue distilled into the phrase “A house divided cannot stand,” perhaps an appropriate lesson for our time. Brahms utilized the same double-chorus arrangement as the Whitacre, and produced variety by sharing sections of the music: men’s voices only, women’s voices only, with themes tossed from one chorus to the other and back in 19th century complexity.

Los Angeles Chamber Choir

The first of two world premiere performances on the evening’s rich menu was Nackkum Paik’s “Succession” – a musical setting for three choirs relating the story of the Old Testament prophet Elijah’s being taken supernaturally from earth, with Elisha inheriting his teacher’s prophetic powers. Soprano Sunmi Shin and baritone Chung Uk Lee provided impressive solos as the choirs mastered difficult non-harmonic chordal blocks enhanced with Korean idiomatic sounds and rhythms, including plucked piano strings by Master Chorale keyboard artist Lisa Edwards to simulate the ancient Korean gayageum and a pair of percussion parts played by Theresa Dimond and John Wakefield.

Ms. Paik likens the biblical parable to the first Korean settlers in America, passing their culture along to the next generation born in this country, the traditional melody of “Arirang” woven into the final measures as imprimatur. Imagine the sound that 42 Chamber Choristers, in addition to the Master Chorale’s 112, could make. Ms. Paik’s compositional gifts are unique and powerful.

After coffee, the evening belonged to the Master Chorale’s own Shawn Kirchner, in his compositional denouement as beneficiary of a three-year composer-in-residence provided courtesy of the Swan Family. Mr. Kirchner has written and arranged individual pieces for the Master Chorale that proved time and again his knowledge of the choral and vocal instrument as well as innate musicianship. This time, he showed us that his gifts extend into the instrumental realm as well, with the top-drawer Master Chorale Orchestra strings and two harps, led by Concertmaster Roger Wilkie, assembled by the ever-reliable Steve Scharf, in his final measures as orchestra contractor, manager and second fiddle at the end of the current season.

Shawn Kirchner

Completed just in time for concert preparation, Mr. Kirchner’s “Songs of Ascent” are a series of seven movements drawn from the Psalms of David with the focus being songs sung by pilgrims as they ascend the steps of the Temple at Jerusalem - (Psalms 132, 122, 127, 128, 131, 130, 121, 133, 134) with a beautiful orchestra interlude over the words “In my distress, I cried unto the Lord” from Psalm 120. Baritone David Castillo represented a penitent King David in several short solos, with soprano Suzanne Waters mastering wide ranges in her challenging solo role.

In the preconcert chat, Mr. Kirchner asked the audience to “please like” a fugue that gave structure to the third movement, “Except the Lord build the house.” He needn’t have worried: the fugue was well written and performed, comprised of jaunty syncopation and angular choral lines within a traditional A-B-A form. Unlike his earlier Plath songs that were meant for only the top drawer of the world’s premiere choral ensembles, “Songs of Ascent” are accessible to very good amateur choirs as well. 


Photos courtesy of Steve Cohn, Alex Berlliner and Russell Scoffin

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