Of all the resident companies at The Music Center, the Los Angeles Master Chorale is the one that truly sets LA apart from other big metros. Orchestras, opera and theatre companies, even ballets, are a dime a dozen in other performing arts centers, but no one else can claim an independent choir of such high quality, long history, and — most importantly — relevance to the community and the art form.
The LAMC is all that and a bag of nuts. Partly to remind every one of this fact, partly as nostalgia and homage to the Music Directors that preceded him, and partly to show off the Master Chorale’s chops, the group’s current top baton, Grant Gershon, put together a generous program on opening night of their 50th Season. The nearly three-hour night (intermission included) was a veritable smorgasbord of choral music ranging from masterpieces, to forgotten or under-appreciated gems, and even some amusing little ditties. Almost all of it was sung a capella, and every single note designed to show off this virtuosic chorus while having a good time in the process.
Curating a concert like this may seem simple enough — “The Greatest Hits of Four Music Directors” is what it looks like on paper — but that can be deceiving. Thankfully, this was no mere laundry list of “this guy liked that composer, and the other guy liked this other composer. The flow was masterful, from serious works to light-hearted ones, with variations in technical requirements throughout. More importantly, it brought to life both the personality of each of the Music Directors and the sound they created with the Master Chorale during their respective tenures. Kudos to Mr. Gershon for absolutely nailing it in that respect.
This was an important — and impressive — part of the evening. Much has been made of the “pyramid” sound preferred by founder Roger Wagner and his disciple, Music Director Emeritus Paul Salamunovich, which emphasizes lower voices over higher ones. In fact, the Music Director Emeritus said this back in 1994:
“When I took over the Chorale,” Salamunovich says, “the first thing Wagner told me was, ‘Paul, get rid of half the sopranos and hire basses’ — to get back to the old sound.” He replaced Currie’s bright, operatic sound with a kinder and gentler sonority, mellow and blended “with the energy — or, should I say, foundation of the sound — coming from the lower voices.” (Timothy Mangan, Los Angeles Times: “The Panache is Back . . . ” December 18, 1994)
It is that sonority that is the Master Chorale’s signature, the one which makes it distinctive among the many excellent choruses throughout the US and the world, and the one with which it sounds the best. It remains the default sound of this group, and its current Music Director knows not only how to bring it to life, but also when to embrace it, when to even it out, and/or when to lighten it up. He did all that and more at last Sunday’s opening night concert.
Mr. Gershon relied on that baseline, male-dominated sound in choral masterpieces like Vittoria’s Ave Maria, the Gregorian Chant Veni Creator Spiritus, and Palestrina’s Tu es Petrus, and even with the “Kyrie – Sally Gardens” from Paul Chihara’s neglected Missa Carminum Brevis. In between, he managed to pivot to an even warmer, more nostalgic, tone in Stephen Foster’s “I Dream of Jeanie” — it was the style of anachronistic blend from the 50’s and 60’s that is distinctly of that time and place. I was immediately brought back to childhood and memories of Christmases listening to unabashedly cheery AND cheesy carols by the Ray Conniff singers spinning on a 33-1/3 vinyl disc (though the quality of the LAMC was/is leagues better); I’ve never heard anyone re-create that sound with that amount of poignancy while still offering a nod to its light-heartedness.
He never tried to reach for the kind of across-the-board wall of sound favored by Scotsman John Currie, who led the LAMC between Messers. Wagner and Salamunovich (the only non-Angeleno to hold the #1 job), but he was willing to give the sopranos more room to maneuver in Mozart’s Ave verum corpus. He also offered an appreciative wink to Mr. Currie’s showmanship by having a kilted pipe & drum ensemble at the close of two Scottish folk songs arranged by Mack Wilberg.
Associate Conductor Lesley Leighton led a charming arrangement of familiar Western Songs for men’s voices (with deadpan-expressioned and cowboy-hat-wearing baritone, Abdiel Gonzalez, making the most of his brief & comical solo). She also elicited loving accounts of two works by Duruflé.
Regardless of any other past or present conductors standing on the Master Chorale’s podium, this is undoubtably Mr. Gershon’s chorus now. It was clear in the final section which featured works across all eras of choral music, from the 16th Century Spem in alium of Thomas Tallis to such diverse present day composers as Hyowon Woo and Shawn Kirchner, with works by luminaries such as Sergei Rachmaninoff and Duke Ellington (among others) in between.
The Master Chorale under Mr. Gershon retains its “pyramid sound” DNA and penchant for consistently amazing blend, and adds to it a flexibility in both repertoire and tonal quality that builds upon its past greatness. This was never more evident on this night than in their performance of Morten Lauridsen’s now-legendary setting of O Magnum Mysterium.
The piece was famously commissioned by former LAMC Board Chairman, Marshall Rutter, for his wife and current LAMC President, Terry Knowles. Mr. Lauridsen wrote it with Mr. Salamunovich and his preferred male-dominant sonic architecture in mind. Mr. Salamunovich’s prescient words given immediately before conducting the world premiere compared this new O Magnum Mysterium with the benchmark one by Vittoria; a recording of that brief introduction was played in the hall for these concerts. If there was a moment that had previously delineated a shift in eras, that was it. The LAMC has recorded it twice with their Music Director Emeritus, one of those times as part of a disc which earned a Grammy nod. Countless other choirs sing it, and many sing it well — but as the composer himself has said, the definitive version has been the one outlined by Mr. Salamunovich.
To program it for this concert was obvious, even expected. Even so, it likely required an extra bit of courage on Mr. Gershon’s part. He’s conducted it many times before, but not when all the singers and audience members had heard those words from his immediate predecesor just before he was about to raise his own hand to give the first downbeat. To add to the pucker factor, Mr. Salamunovich has been taken rather ill as of late, and the Master Chorale chose to dedicate this historic concert to him. No pressure.
The result was breathtaking. Mr. Gershon managed to take a piece that has been a calling-card for this chorale, and — while keeping the overall shape, clarity, and balance similar to everyone’s collective memory — he carved out some space of his own rather than allowing it to become a museum piece.
He enriched it with a slightly more fluid pacing. The comfortable glow that everyone has loved in Lauridsen’s harmonies and textures was still present, but there was an added lightness & clarity to them, the difference between traditional stained-glass windows in churches and the brighter yet warmer light that streams through the translucent alabaster panels of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels a block away from Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Even the important note the altos sing during the words “Beata Virgo,” a note which gives an ominous moment to the otherwise uplifting music, was transformative: that moment somehow became simultaneously scaled back yet more edgy, offering a greater sense of foreboding and more of the sharpness and pain that the one note allegorically represents in the Virgin Mary’s upcoming life as the mother of the new-born Messiah.
O Magnum Mysterium was clearly the highlight of the evening. The singers of the Master Chorale had been magnificent the whole concert, but during this important work, they were on another plane entirely. They were attentive to their conductor and stayed completely in control, while still singing with palpable emotion and passion. Blend, precision, and tone were impeccable. High notes soared with remarkable purity; low notes rumbled without growling; voices in between were crystalline yet seamless.
The result was arresting, radiant, and ultimately cathartic. Even the noisiest audience members were as locked-in as the singers were; I don’t think I’ve ever seen or heard a Walt Disney Concert Hall audience be so unified with the performers on stage. As the resonance of the final notes finally faded away and Mr. Gershon took a few extra seconds to hold on to the silence, the audience waited in rapt anticipation before erupting into massive cheers, first for the performers, and then for the composer who was sitting amongst them. It was undeniably glorious.
The coming weeks will see an ongoing celebration of the 10th Anniversary of the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall, care of the good folks of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. There will be much discussion and reminiscing about the many fine concerts that have been presented in this landmark space. From now on, any list of top concerts ever must now include this night, by this ensemble. It was — and will remain — an unforgettable experience.
Bravissimi, Los Angeles Master Chorale, and congratulations on this golden anniversary season. May you have at least 50 times 50 more to come!
Random other thoughts:
- The final work of the evening, Randall Thompson’s Alleluia, included an invitation to Master Chorale alumni in attendance to join in. The contingent was big enough to not only crowd the stage but to force overflow (planned, no doubt) into the aisles of the orchestra level of the audience. Some of the more advanced-aged alumni needed various forms of assistance to get on stage, but they still came — and with their considerable pipes still intact. As impressive as the Lauridsen O Magnum Mysterium was, a close second would have to be the level of precision and blend this alumni-appended version of the Master Chorale sounded. The legacy of this chorale is clearly VERY strong.
- A list of alumni in attendance was included in the evening’s printed program. Among the distinguished singers on that list was Hanan Yaqub — LAMC member from 1974-1988 . . . and high school music teacher of the multi-talented Mrs. CKDH.
- During the extended, 30 minute intermission, a one-time exhibition appeared in the pre-concert lecture hall within WDCH. Included were large display boards charting the progress of the Master Chorale through the years. Among the more noteworthy images were Lauridsen’s original manuscript sketch of O Magnum Mysterium and what looked at first to be a non-descript 1965 picture of some LAMC singers singing along the staircase of the Holmby Hills mansion of Louis D. Statham, a prominent LA philanthropist and Master Chorale co-founder — non-discript unless you read the accompanying caption, stating that soon after the picture was taken, the mansion was sold to a gentleman named Hugh Hefner. . . . I wonder how many Master Chorale performances have occurred in that particular mansion since then? . . .
- The ladies of the Master Chorale are sporting new outfits. They are, well, “fine,” but I prefer their previous all-black look. It was the only thing the Master Chorale did all evening that was less than ideal.
Los Angeles Master Chorale: September 22, 2013; Walt Disney Concert Hall
Grant Gershon, conductor
Lesley Leighton, associate conductor
Soloists: Steve Pence (baritone), Abdiel Gonzalez (baritone), Sunjoo Yeo (soprano), Ayana Haviv (soprano), Alice Kirwan Murray (mezzo-soprano)
Piano: Lisa Edwards and Shawn Kirchner
Percussion: Theresa Dimond, Timm Boatman, Alex Acuña
ROGER WAGNER YEARS (1964-1986)
Tomaso Luigi da Vittoria | Ave Maria
Pierre Passereau | Il est bel et bon
Paul Chihara | Kyrie from Missa Carminum
Spirituals by Jester Hairston & William Dawson
Stephen Collins Foster | Cowboy Songs (arr. Wagner)
Danny Boy (arr. Wagner)
JOHN CURRIE YEARS (1986-1991)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart | Ave verum corpus
Scottish Folk Songs: My Love’s in Germany and I’ll Ay Call in by Yon Town
PAUL SALAMUNOVICH YEARS (1991-2001)
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina | Tu es Petrus
Morten Lauridsen | O Magnum Mysterium
Maurice Duruflé | Ubi caritas
The Lord Bless You and Keep You (arr. Rutter)
GRANT GERSHON YEARS (2001-present)
Thomas Tallis | Spem in alium
Hyowon Woo | Me-na-ri
William Walker | The Good Old Way (Shape-note hymn)
Sergei Rachmaninoff | “Rejoice, O Virgin” from All-Night Vigil
Edward Kennedy (Duke) Ellington | The Lord’s Prayer
Cesar Alejandro Carrillo | Oiga, Compae
Shawn Kirchner | “Angel Band” and “Unclouded Day,” from Heavenly Home
Finale: Randall Thompson’s Alleluia with current and former LAMC singers
- Historical photos: courtesy of the Los Angeles Master Chorale
- Photos of Grant Gershon & LAMC from opening night: David Johnston for the Los Angeles Master Chorale