Renaissance Epic Has Activist Tone In Sellars Staging

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la-master-chorale-performs-lassos-lagrime-di-san-pietro-tao-ruspoli
The LA Master Chorale performs Orlando di Lasso’s massive ‘Lagrime di San Pietro’ almost entirely from memory.
(Concert photos by Tao Ruspoli)
By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES — There are probably a few pieces less likely to kick off a concert season with a bang than Orlando di Lasso’s austere, expansive last testament from 1594, Lagrime di San Pietro, but I’d be hard-pressed to name them. Yet that is precisely what Los Angeles Master Chorale artistic director Grant Gershon had in mind Sunday night (Oct. 30) as his first offering of the season — and not only that, he brought the ever-provocative Peter Sellars in to stage the thing.

At the pre-concert talk, Sellars and Gershon made it clear that they knew what they were in for. “There’s not enough rehearsal time on this earth for this piece,” said Sellars with typical hyberbole. “We spent more time putting this together than anything else we’ve done since I came here,” said Gershon.

Orlando di Lasso, Da Massmil portrait (Museo internazionale e biblioteca della musica, Bologna)
Orlando di Lasso was 62 when he wrote the devotional epic.
(Museo internazionale e biblioteca della musica, Bologna)

They were dealing with the final work of an ailing, financially strapped composer, aged 62, who channeled his pain into a setting of a devotional epic on St. Peter by the Italian Renaissance poet Luigi Tansillo. The title is literally Tears of St. Peter, with 20 stanzas devoted to an aged Peter’s guilt and remorse over his betrayal of Jesus, followed by a flashback motet in which Jesus says that Peter’s ingratitude hurts even more than the physical pain of being nailed to the cross.

Leave it to Sellars to extract some kind of contemporary activist allegory — his usual specialty — out of this. Step up and speak out against injustice, even at your own personal risk, whenever you see it. Gershon sees relationships with other late testaments like Mahler’s Adagios from the Ninth and Tenth Symphonies, the last Beethoven quartets, the liturgical dodecaphonic pieces Stravinsky wrote when he lived in the Hollywood hills — stripped-down music in which every note counts.

The project's concept was an extension of themes visited earlier by Gershon and Sellars.
The project’s concept was an extension of themes visited earlier by Gershon and Sellars.

Also, the Lasso piece was actually an extension of themes from some of the projects Gershon and Sellars had been working on before — the all-Stravinsky program of Oedipus Rex and Symphony of Psalms that closed out Esa-Pekka Salonen’s term as L.A. Philharmonic music director in 2009 (Salonen was in the audience Sunday night) and especially John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary from 2012-13. So this idea didn’t come completely from out of the blue.

There are 21 stanzas in all, and the numbers three and seven determine the structure of the piece. It’s divided into three sections containing a total of 168 lines (a number divisible by seven), with seven polyphonic vocal parts throughout. The tempos are unvaried, the length is well over an hour, and the piece can be very demanding on performers and listeners alike.

the-singers-mirrored-the-meaning-of-the-text-with-formalized-gestures-tao-ruspoli
The singers mirrored the meaning of the Luigi Tansillo’s text with formalized gestures.

Now, how do you stage this? Sellars reached into his bag of tricks and brought forth a staging very similar to what he did at the Stravinsky concert. The 21 barefooted members of the Master Chorale came onto the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage, clad in casual workers’ dress in various drab shades of gray. They were kept very busy moving around the stage, expanding and contracting in formation, gesturing, writhing, embracing, lying on their backs or lying face down. When the text said that Peter felt like he was being stabbed in the heart by a thousand darts, they all clutched their chests in agony. While this kind of mobile choral activity looked hokey, corny, and distracting in Stravinsky, it seemed to focus attention upon Lasso’s music and the text more effectively, providing visual extrapolations that weren’t really out of line.

The first edition of the Lasso work was printed in 1595.
The first edition of the Lasso work was printed in 1595.

All of the singers were asked to memorize the music from stanzas 1 through 15 — no mean feat with all of that shifting polyphony going on. They retreated to chairs and music stands in No. 16 but they were back on their feet a couple of sections later. Gershon, himself barefooted as well, moved around the stage with the grace of a dance master, leading the voices from several vantage points. James F. Ingalls supervised subtle changes in lighting, from a cold wintry look in stanza 10 (which begins, “Like a snowflake …”) to fiery orange during Jesus’ speech on the cross.

Through it all, the Master Chorale sounded glorious — rich, accurate, seemingly unaffected by all of the physical contortions Sellars put them through, even when singing face-down on the stage muffled their voices. The 21 stanzas have been defined as sacred madrigals, yet Gershon made them sound as engaging as secular madrigals, with occasional passionate bursts of fortissimo out of the general texture that relieved the monotony that can set in. While Lagrime di San Pietro has been performed or recorded both with and without backing instruments — as the conditions of the Bavarian court of Lasso’s time seemed to allow — the Master Chorale performed it a cappella, three singers for each of the seven parts (playing the numbers game again), needing nothing else.

Disney Hall looked virtually sold out, as it has been frequently for Master Chorale concerts in recent years under Gershon; this audience seems to trust him wherever he may lead. And he needed all of that trust Sunday night, which he was able to repay with an Italian Renaissance monument made more human and approachable, if still not entirely easy to take.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.