By Rodney Punt
LOS ANGELES – Choral ensembles with repertoire based on sacred masterpieces face the challenge of how to frame them for modern audiences to remove the sense of a parochial agenda. The Los Angeles Master Chorale’s artistic director, Grant Gershon, has addressed this issue in recent seasons by pairing traditional choral masterworks with new works that invest them with contemporary perspectives.
Last season’s final concert, Brahms’ A German Requiem, introduced two such works: Caroline Shaw’s Fly Away and David Lang’s Where You Go played off the contemplative, already de-emphasized religious sensibility of the Brahms. Shaw’s work was a deconstruction of America’s church hymn tradition, and Lang’s took a fresh view of the biblical Book of Ruth, also referenced in the fifth movement of Brahms’ work. Likewise, the upcoming November concert will feature J.S. Bach’s Magnificat with Los Angeles composer Reena Esmail’s This Love Between Us: Prayers for Unity, which she specifically wrote to be paired with the Bach.
All of which makes a bit awkward the coupling in the Sept. 22 performance of the Mozart Requiem with Los Angeles-based composer (and L.A. Master Chorale chorister) Shawn Kirchner’s Songs of Ascent, two works of vastly different aesthetics and emotional climates, at Walt Disney Concert Hall. What seems to have fostered this marriage of uneasy convenience – in addition to both requiring a large staging, soloists unique to each work, and the employment of an orchestra – was a shared requirement for two solo vocal types: an authoritative patriarchal baritone and an angelic lyric soprano.
Songs of Ascent was composed in 2015 during Kirchner’s three-year tenure as Swan Family Composer-in-Residence with the Master Chorale. Not satisfied with the results, he revisited and expanded the score that was just premiered. Kirchner describes it as having “a sense of journey” like Mozart’s Requiem, each having “very overt dramatic qualities: the soloists are at times in dialogue with each other but at times even seem to be in conflict.” But what struck me was how different were the competing perspectives of the two works.
The Mozart Requiem is filled with anxiety-ridden passages, and its composer never lived to see it completed. Shortly after receiving its commission from the shadowy emissary of a wealthy anonymous patron (who planned to palm the work off as his own creation), Mozart came to see his Requiem as more epitaph than epiphany. Much of what he was able to finish of it was written in rapidly deteriorating health, some of it on his deathbed. Mozart’s wife was able to enlist his last pupil, Franz Xaver Süssmayr, to finish the work, which he did using the few indications Mozart had left behind, coupled with his own ideas and generous chunks of repurposed music by Handel and Bach, composers well known to Mozart. Yet with all this checkered creative history, the Requiem’s powerfully cathartic journey goes not quietly into that dark night, tersely traversing the agony and terror of death before arriving at a reconciliation with it.
By comparison, Kirchner’s Songs of Ascent, for chorus and soloists, supported by a string orchestra and a harp, maintains the serenity of a stroll through the leafy English countryside. Its lush, romantic score is reminiscent of those by Vaughan Williams or Delius in their pastoral modes. Its literary program uses the King James Bible translations of thirteen strung-together Psalms, which Kirchner organized into three parts: One: a “community in its intact state” (movements 1-4), Two: a “drama of brokenness, suffering, and conflict” (movements 5-8), and Three: a “longed-for healing and reconciliation” (movements 9-10).
The outer two parts are pretty, lightweight, and static. Recognizing that he had neglected dramatic conflict in earlier versions of the work, Kirchner added a modicum of it in Part II. It’s definitely an improvement, but it strikes me as too little.
The recitations from the Bible, buttressed by the plush score, go on for the better part of an hour. Considered as a whole, the collection of small settings writ large becomes too much of the same sort of sound, its narrow emotional range becoming soporific, inducing aesthetic claustrophobia.
In certain small doses, the work has its nice moments. I found the setting of Psalm 120 in Part II, “In my distress I cried unto the Lord,” the most compelling of the evening. Quick switches from major to minor and back again effectively conveyed the feel of iniquity and the need for forgiveness. The employment of augmented chords in Psalm 131 was also a colorful touch. But these contrasts appeared too infrequently to make of the several parts a convincing whole.
The performance of both works was up to the high standards we have come to expect of the Master Chorale. Its vocal production was nicely articulated in the Disney’s clear acoustics. Gershon’s handling of the musical forces ensured equal amounts of tenderness and power. His Mozart moved the drama crisply, and he kept the cloying quotient in the Kirchner in check. The orchestra played here, as always, with full commitment and precision.
Resonant baritone Rod Gilfry was commanding in the first and third sections of the Kirchner, his outings later on in the Mozart adding an equivalent gravitas. Liv Redpath’s crystalline rendition of three of the Psalms, from the middle depths of the stage, invoked a sense of celestial visitation, as did her welcome presence in the Requiem. Mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges’ rich voice supplied human compassion to the middle sections of the Requiem, and so did the bright tenor of David Portillo. Tenor Robert Norman and baritone Abdiel González, both regular members of the Master Chorale, occupied opposite sides of the stage in the middle “conflicted” part of Songs of Ascent, representing competing claims of divine support.
Where the Mozart, flawed though it is, retains an urgency born of the composer’s existential crisis, the Kirchner offers a serenity of a leisurely visit taken at one’s option. In a larger sense, it’s not Kirchner’s fine craftsmanship that rankles, it’s the sense of his inoculation from a complex and urgent reality that is a defining characteristic of the modern world.
Rodney Punt publishes LA Opus, an on-line journal of music and theater based in Los Angeles. His concert reviews can also be found on The Huffington Post and San Francisco Classical Voice. Early on a performer (clarinet, oboe, piano, voice, and choral direction), he served in academic administration at the USC School of Performing Arts, followed by two decades as Deputy Director of the L.A. City Cultural Affairs Department.