After the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s rousing season opening gala, Music Director Grant Gershon decided to trot out a familiar crowd-pleaser for its second weekend of concerts: Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. For some, the cantata has worn out its welcome long ago, but for others — myself included — it remains an entertainingly addictive thrill-ride of a concert hall experience. I came to grips with that fact a long time ago. My name is CK Dexter Haven, and I’m a fan of Carmina Burana. . . . (“Hi, CK” . . . )
While programming Orff’s crowd-pleaser is a bit of a no-brainer for any season, trying to find something to pair with it is more challenging. For these concerts, Mr. Gershon went with Verdi’s Te Deum, a choice he described as “stunningly asymmetrical” in both length and temperament.
It proved to be a prescient choice for a number of reasons. First of all, it served as an appropriate homage to the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Second, Mr. Gershon has certainly been immersed in the composer’s ouevre for the past few months: after getting the Master Chorale ready for Verdi’s mammoth Requiem at the Hollywood Bowl over the summer (a performance with Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil that is being released today on DVD & Blu-ray), he was then in the midst of preparing his other group of singers — the Los Angeles Opera chorus — for their part in performances of Falstaff. Most importantly, he clearly loves this work, and it showed.
The Te Deum, written a few years after Falstaff when the composer was in his early 80’s, is a compact showpiece of Verdi’s opulent writing for voice. It is scored for orchestra and a pair of four-part choruses, and features moments of heart-wrenching tenderness alternating with blocks of massive power. Mr. Gershon handled it all with aplomb. From the opening chant-like lines in the male voices, through the full chorus’s thunderous entrance with “Sanctus” and the many grand ebbs and flows that followed, to the final reticent notes, it all bloomed and breathed like a communal prayer come to life before finally easing its way up to heaven. The Master Chorale sounded rich and vibrant throughout.
After intermission, Carmina Burana took things from the profound to the profane. The work is as large a choral warhorse as likely exists in the repertoire. The Master Chorale has performed it with regularity over its 50 year existence, most recently doing it twice last summer with Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. Like those concerts, the very capable Los Angeles Children’s Chorus joined in on the fun this time around.
It was a thoroughly entertaining performance, though it is tough to give the overly-familiar chugging and churning of Orff’s music a fresh reading — and there was nothing ground-breaking on this night. Mr. Gershon seemed quite content to drive it like a top-fuel dragster: pedal to the metal, full speed ahead, with minimal veering one way or another. Tempos were quick, almost aggressive. Dynamics ranged from big to bigger — think rock concert volume but without the amplifiers, and you wouldn’t be that far off. He was not afraid to unleash the full power of his combined forces within the resonant confines of Walt Disney Concert Hall to such searing intensity that a couple of folks around me flinched. Most in the audience, though, basked in the sonic glow of its grandeur.
Of the three vocal soloists, soprano Stacey Tappan was the definite standout. A frequent contributer to local stages, she gave her part the right combination of innocence and flirtiness. Her upper-range sparkled, and her tone throughout was silky. Whether it is performing Mozart as she did with the LA Chamber Orchestra earlier this year, Rossini or Britten with Los Angeles Opera, or this relatively brief but challenging role, she is always spot on.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said of José Adán Pérez. The baritone’s moderately sized voice, while solid, was frequently swallowed up by the choral monster singing behind him. Even more problematic was a lack of variety to his characterizations regardless of whether he sung of the rebirth of Spring or of the death of his soul; he performed the drunken abbot character the same way he did his role as a young man in love. His frequent reliance on his sheet music did not help matters. In the end, he didn’t detract from the overall performance, but neither did he enhance it.
Tenor Timothy Gonzales was an understandably nervous “roasted swan,” and he gave the short solo his vocal and comic all. The singers of the Master Chorale were clearly having a lot of fun, and aside from a couple of rough, over-eager entrances, were their usual excellent selves. The Los Angeles Children’s Chorus was wonderful.
On both Verdi and Orff, the orchestra was energetic yet balanced, and sounded solid throughout the evening.
Random other thoughts:
- The LAMC joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic for a recording the Verdi Te Deum, along with the other three works that make up the Quattro pezzi sacri, back when founder Roger Wagner was the Music Director. Those performances, conducted by Zubin Mehta, are still available today, paired with an excellent rendition of the Requiem with Fritz Reiner conducting the Vienna Philharmonic.
- The second trumpet for this performance was listed as Jennifer Marotta, but she was not on stage. Fortunately her husband filled in for her rather capably. . . . At times like this, it helps when you’re married to the Principal Trumpet of the LA Phil.
- The Master Chorale’s next concerts, beginning December 7th, take them into holiday mode. There are many to choose from, including performances of carols, Christmas choral works, and of course, Messiah (in both sing-along and regular performance versions). Check www.lamc.org for more details.
Los Angeles Master Chorale: November 2, 2013; Walt Disney Concert Hall
Grant Gershon, conductor
Stacey Tappan, soprano
Timothy Gonzales, tenor
José Adán Pérez, baritone
Los Angeles Children’s Chorus (Anne Tomlinson, artistic director)
Verdi: Te Deum
Orff: Carmina Burana
- Grant Gershon: Ken Hively
- Stacey Tappan: courtesy of Scott Levine Management