The term “unknown masterpiece” is one usually ascribed to works that haven’t seen the light of day for decades or centuries before somehow being unearthed: a Bach aria stashed amidst birthday cards in a Weimar library or a $5 thrift store painting that may end up being a long-lost Jackson Pollack.
Lagrime di San Pietro (Tears of St. Peter) by Orlando di Lasso can also be considered an unknown masterpiece, but for a couple different reasons: (a) the Renaissance-era composer does not have the present-day name recognition of contemporaries like, say, Monteverdi, Palestrina, or Victoria; it doesn’t help that there are multiple variations of his name, with Orlande de Lassus, Roland de Lassus, and Roland de Lattre being just three options among others (b) the work itself is rarely performed, especially in the U.S. I’ve spoken to quite a few singers and music writers, and none of them have heard it live or sung it themselves, and only a handful of them had listened to the music.
Grant Gershon, Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, has been wanting to perform this work for many years. He finally gets his chance at this weekend’s Master Chorale concerts which kickoff their 2016-17 season, in two semi-staged performances directed by Peter Sellars. I had the chance to chat with him over the phone recently, and his enthusiasm about the work is palpable.
Based on that conversation, I offer you this list of Top Seven things you should know about these LAMC performances of Lagrime di San Pietro:
1. This is arguably the most challenging work Grant Gershon and the Master Chorale have done
“I’ve known about [Lagrime di San Pietro] for many years.” explains Mr. Gershon. “I’ve had a recording of it which is very beautiful – the [Philippe] Herreweghe recording – and I’ve been listening to that for the past six or seven years.” He recalls how when working with John Adams on The Gospel According to the Other Mary, the composer mentioned how he was inspired by music of di Lasso and/or Lagrime in crafting the choral writing for his own work.
“I think it was that conversation with John that triggered this reaction because there I was looking at this piece again and it seemed to me that one of the challenges of Lagrime as a concert piece is that as beautiful and complex of a piece it is, it doesn’t necessarily reveal itself in the most immediate way like modern audiences are accustomed to,” he explains. “One way to get at the piece and to really bring out all the emotion and all of the different layers of the piece was to have Peter work on it and treat it the same way that he’s treated The Gospel and the choral portions of his various projects, specifically thinking about his work on Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms and Oedipus Rex.”
Messrs. Gershon and Sellars have a long and storied history as collaborators and friends, and Mr. Sellars is an aficionado of Renaissance music, so it seemed like a natural fit, at least at first; however, it turns out that the director wasn’t familiar with Lagrime. “So he went out and listened to it,” Mr. Gershon reveals,” and was intrigued by it. At the same time, he immediately told me that if we were to embark on this, it would be the most difficult undertaking that he’d ever attempted. At first, I thought that was just Peter being a bit hyperbolic. But then as I started to think about it more and thought about what it would really mean to completely memorize this piece, I came to realize that he’s probably right,” says Mr. Gershon with a nervous laugh.
“We kept talking about it as we were working on The Gospel, and both of us kept coming back to it in conversation and the idea continued to percolate. Finally, about a year and a half ago, we ran into each other and we both said, ‘Let’s do this thing, put in on the calendar, and commit to it.’ So that’s basically it. We just decided to go for The White Whale and here we are with our harpoon and the waves are getting bigger.”
I ask whether or not he’s worried about that metaphoric whale shattering his ship, leaving him floating in an empty coffin, and his response comes with another slightly nervous laugh:
“Ask me on November 1 after the concerts.”
2. Lagrime di San Pietro has required a record-breaking number of rehearsals
To put the Moby Dick analogy into a more tangible light, consider this: “A typical concert of a major work like Brahms Requiem usually takes about 3 piano rehearsals, a few orchestral rehearsals, and a couple of orchestra rehearsals on stage,” Mr. Gershon clarifies. “For more challenging works like the Christopher Rouse Requiem, we’ve had as many as 7 music rehearsals.”
In sharp contrast, Lagrime di San Pietro, has needed a staggering amount of preparation time. “We had ten music rehearsals, which is unheard of for the Master Chorale, a total of fourteen staging rehearsals with Peter, and then another two final rehearsals on stage. Twenty Six rehearsals in total — a record by at least two times over,” emphasizes Mr. Gershon.
Yowza. It’s a bit crazy to think, given the complexities of contemporary music such as microtonal works by Ligeti or the rhythmic machinations of Stephen Reich, that it would be easier to put together than music written over 400 years ago.
“I have to say, though, on the other hand, one of the things that makes the technical aspect more doable is the fact that the poetry and the music are so linked together. Truly, if you simply had to memorize the 170 lines or so of Italian poetry, that would be next to impossible for non-fluent Italian speakers. But it’s so beautifully linked to the music that it gives to us musicians an extra point of contact that helps with the learning and the memorization.”
3. Speaking of numbers, numerologists could have a field day with this piece
The numbers three (3) and seven (7) have a prominent place for Christians: three represents the Holy Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, there were three Magi that brought gifts to the Baby Jesus, and Jesus rose from the dead on the 3rd day; seven is the number of total days of Creation, with God resting on the seventh day, and Jesus feeds multitudes via the miracle of multiplying seven loaves and fishes. There are, of course, also the more sinister references, as in the Seven Deadly Sins, the Devil tempts Jesus three times, and, perhaps most importantly for this work, the three times the Apostle Peter denies Jesus. Those two numbers — seven and three — are sprinkled throughout these concerts, thanks both to di Lasso and Mr. Gershon.
First of all, the piece is composed of 21 stanzas — 3 multiplied by 7. And as Thomas May points out in his very detailed and informative program notes for the concerts, there are 168 lines of poetry set to music — a number evenly divisible by seven. Secondly, di Lasso writes Lagrime for seven distinct vocal parts.
Mr. Gershon takes it a step further: he puts three singers on each of the seven parts. In addition to reinforcing the numerology inherent in Lagrime, there are some practical reasons for this choice: “It would have likely been performed one on a part; that was the madrigal tradition back then and the recordings I’m familiar with are that way. Peter and I felt that in Walt Disney Concert Hall, that [number of singers] would not have the presence, nor would it have what we’re after: a sense of a larger community which is going through the ritual of the piece. Three on a part gives presence with transparency, plus giving each of the singers a bit of a cushion with their partners.”
4. The difference between madrigals and motets are a key aspect of this piece
Mr. Gershon is generous with praise for the work and the challenge it presents to his singers. “There are 21 movements – twenty madrigals and one Latin motet. So that means twenty poems written in archaic Italian that one has to commit to memory along with the lyrics of the motet. The counterpoint is very intricate and meticulous, particularly with di Lasso at the end of his life, and everything is so brilliantly, flawlessly crafted that one false move would turn it into a house of cards and the whole thing would come crashing down.”
Indeed, di Lasso blurs the traditional lines between madrigal (populist songs written in the vernacular with lyrics ranging from secular to profane) and motets (sacred latin texts set to music that was considered appropriate for liturgical use) by referring to the first 20 stanzas, poems by Luigi Tansillo, as “madrigali spirituali” or spiritual madrigals — madrigals set to sacred, if vernacular, lyrics.
For Mr. Gershon, that difference provides a key point of differentiation in how he and Mr. Sellars approached Lagrime vs. others:
“The big difference between the two forms is the immediacy of the word setting and the flexibility of the composer’s response to the words, which is much more vivid generally in a madrigal. Peter likes to talk about madrigals as barbershop conversations: there’s an informality and spontaneity to it . . . . The tempo is very flexible, the declamation is extremely varied.”
“I have to say that after I’ve listened to different recordings which are all beautiful, none of them treat it to my mind with that sense of spontaneity which I think is inherent. Maybe because the spiritual aspect of it that singers treat it with so much reverence that it flattens the musical vitality. So one of the things that I’m hoping for with these performances is to liberate the piece from the sense that the whole things needs to be performed as if you were on your knees in a church pew.”
5. With this Peter Sellars production, expect the unexpected (as usual)
While many of Mr. Sellars recent productions have been relatively direct and minimalistic (La Passion de Simone at this year’s Ojai Festival being a prime example), he’s better known for asking a lot from his singers. I doubt the Master Chorale would be surprised by much given the number of performances with which they’ve collaborated with Mr. Sellars. To paraphrase the cartoon hero Super Chicken, they knew the job was dangerous when they took it.
Look for more non-standard singing positions for the 21 singers on stage. And that’s a good thing, according to Mr. Gershon.
“I think all of us have seen the performances of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Dawn Upshaw, and Eric Owens, people who have channeled Peter the most closely over the years and seen what they’ve found together in the music is so rich and deeply meaningful. I think we’ve all found that the best thing to do is to trust Peter and trust each other, and the result is usually amazing.”
Has there ever been a time where he felt he had to prevent Mr. Sellars from implementing some of his theatrical vision?
“I have very rarely felt the need to step up in any of my situations with Peter and say, ‘Eh, I don’t know . . .’ because if it’s really a problem, he figures it out himself. But oftentimes, what seems on the first try like, ‘Oh my God, now we’ve gone completely over the edge and this is impossible,’ the singers not only find a way to make it work but find how that movement actually unlocks something in the music.”
“One of the things I quickly learned is that Peter himself will generally notice if something is just not working or if he’s created a situation for a performer that is impossible or clearly compromising what they do. That said, I love when people are open to the challenge and find the way. Peter often jokes that when he’s staging and someone is on the floor contorted like a pretzel, upper body going one way and legs going the other, he refers to it as ‘ideal singing position #347.’
6. If all goes well, these won’t be the last times this version of Lagrime di San Pietro will be performed
It seems incongruous that Mr. Gershon and the Master Chorale would put this much effort into preparing these two performances only to pack them back up and move on without a second thought. And while nothing has yet been announced, I’d expect that, based on prior conversation with LAMC President Jean Davidson, conductor and choir would want to expose more audiences to this unknown masterpiece.
‘That certainly is the plan and hope at this time,” Mr. Gershon reveals. “Part of what Peter and I talked about from the beginning is to make this very portable so that there is no set and no props, small footprint, 21 singers, no band. That was the intent from the beginning, to have something that would be of interest to some of the most high-profile presenters around. We’ve already had some express interest, which is great because this really embodies what the Master Chorale is about now. More news to follow.”
The performances will also be recorded via both audio and video for archival and promotional purposes, though no current plans exist to release it commercially.
(The Los Angeles Master Chorale performs Lagrime di San Pietro by Orlando di Lasso in a semi-staged production, conducted by Grant Gershon and directed by Peter Sellars, at 8pm on Saturday, October 29, and 7pm on Sunday, October 30. Both performances will be at Walt Disney Concert Hall)
- A chat with Jean Davidson, new President & CEO of the Los Angeles Master Chorale
- Photos by Tao Ruspoli and Patrick Brown