By Richard S. Ginell
LOS ANGELES – While the Los Angeles Philharmonic gets the lion’s share of attention for its progressive programming, its co-resident in Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, has been mirroring that trait all along. Under Grant Gershon, its enthusiastic, boyish-looking music director, the Master Chorale has kept one foot planted in the usual choral tradition and the other foot eagerly stepping out of the mold.
Most encouragingly, Gershon has built a markedly younger-looking audience than his predecessors, one that seems to follow him wherever he chooses to lead. It’s one thing to sell out Disney Hall with Mozart’s popular Requiem; it’s quite another to devote a concert entirely to new music – including three world premieres – and still nearly fill the hall. Yet that’s what Gershon did on June 8 to conclude the Master Chorale’s 50th anniversary season, and few veteran Chorale watchers should have been surprised.
Shawn Kirchner, the composer of Inscapes, happens to be both the Master Chorale’s current composer-in-residence and a member of the tenor section; he could be seen singing in the ranks. Inspired to some degree by Beethoven piano sonatas and old-growth trees, Inscapes established a euphonious floor for the evening, with cascades and canons, parts tossed back and forth among the sections, and a grand closing – resourceful, pleasing choral writing.
David Lang intended to write something for the Master Chorale that would be a change-of-pace from the “depressing” (his word) character of his breakout piece, the little match girl passion, which this ensemble has performed on a number of occasions, and its companion, death speaks. Yet Lang’s the national anthems – the text of which consists of a compilation of fragments from all of the world’s anthems – merely continues to mine a similar plaintive, spare, reticent (no wonder his titles are lower-case), repetitive language that he used in the previous two pieces. This setting had the effect of undercutting the hectoring, jingoistic words with fashionable irony as the Calder Quartet accompanied the Chorale in sustained waves, sometimes falling into lockstep unison with the voices.
Esa-Pekka Salonen, who collaborated many times with the Master Chorale when he was music director of the LA Phil, contributed what was easily the most avant-garde-sounding world premiere of the evening, Iri da iri (from Dante’s Paradiso) – commissioned, astonishingly, by the Master Chorale members themselves. With slow, dissonant, wordless drones underpinning the main line at first, the a cappella piece gradually soared in pitch and volume, requiring (and getting) very responsive control of dynamics from this expert chorus. Salonen describes the writing as “like milk being poured into a jar of water”; what I hear is a glistening, aural equivalent of the Aurora Borealis – beautiful, strange, and chilly in a Northern way.
The two previously performed pieces on the program shared a strong South American flavor. Gabriela Lena Frank’s Los Cantores de las Montañas opens and closes with pan pipes and flute evoking a spatial landscape somewhere in the Peruvian Andes; the interior of the piece rattles and flows to syncopated rhythms, with the long-established L.A.-based band Huayucaltia providing the backing. Francisco Núñez conducted his own Es Tu Tiempo, a joyously swinging samba brightly sung by the LAMC High School Choir Festival Honor Choir mingling with adult members of the Master Chorale. If there was a single hit of the evening, this was it – and the song was promptly reprised.
Throughout this wide variety of musical languages, there were local slants of one sort or another unifying the evening. The program also hinted at some future shifts in direction for the Master Chorale. Starting next season, Gershon’s title pointedly changes from music director to artistic director, and he has ideas – presenting fewer “formal” concerts in tuxes, finding other acoustical spaces around the city to suit particular pieces, using choreographers, stage directors, video, and social media, exploring more new music. Embattled organizations from around the country should be watching to see if Gershon can find ways to keep his following and expand it from there.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide.