LOS ANGELES — The pandemic has provoked or inspired composers to react in the best way that they know how: to create new works. In doing so, they are following in the path of figures like Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672). Probably the most formidable German composer prior to J.S. Bach and Handel, Schütz offered a musical response to the plague of his time.
Enter Peter Sellars, who is always quick to connect works from the past — in this case, the deep, dark past — with contemporary events, issues, and personalities.
When the shutdown hit in early 2020, Sellars says that he spent his time in isolation immersed in the music of Schütz — and, voila, the light bulb went on. He had been looking for a follow-up project for Grant Gershon and the Los Angeles Master Chorale after their innovative 2016 staging and subsequent touring of Orlando di Lasso’s obscure a cappella choral work Lagrime di San Pietro. What he hit upon was Schütz’s Musikalische Exequien — or Funeral Music — which was written for the funeral of a Saxon prince, Heinrich II Posthumus of Reuss, who happened to be a friend of the composer as well as a bass singer. It was allegedly the first such piece to use a German language text instead of the usual required Latin one.
What does this work have to do with our current situation? Turns out that Schütz was writing his German Requiem in 1636 while a plague and the Thirty Years War were going on — conditions that could be considered analogous to our present pandemic coupled with the war in Ukraine and real or threatened wars elsewhere. Furthermore, a look at some of the texts, a rather free (for the time) juxtaposition of passages from the Bible with verses from Lutheran hymnody, reveals some startling, pessimistic musings about the pain and sorrow of everyday life and the inevitability of death that hardly need updating. Or how about this passage adapted from Isaiah 26:20 as spelled out in the supertitles: “Run to your homes/Lock the doors.” In other words, self-isolate and avoid the plague.
The gloom lasts throughout the massive first section of the work, leaving any intended sense of relief to two short additional movements, the last of which uses a split chorus divided between voices of the departed and those left on Earth. Sellars’ goal, we’re told, is to provide at least some measure of comfort and closure for people who have lost loved ones to Covid but never had the chance to say goodbye due to enforced isolation of the victims in their final hours. “We lost the emotional temperature of our lives over the past two years,” said Sellars during a pre-concert panel, ever the master salesman delivering the pitch.
Therefore, it was not a stretch for Sellars to design a staged Musikalische Exequien as a simulated contemporary funeral service in Walt Disney Concert Hall on Nov. 20 under the heading “Music to Accompany a Departure.”
Gershon and 24 members of the Master Chorale gradually wandered into the hall singly and in pairs — casually and solemnly mingling, chatting, or hugging one another as if this funeral were for real. The singers gradually took their seats in chairs arranged in a 45-degree angle pattern from the audience’s front view on the stage. In front of the chairs was a table that served as a bier. To the right, a portative organ (Lisa Edwards) and viol da gamba (Eva Lymenstull) provided instrumental accompaniment now and then.
During the long opening section, the singers acted out a series of playlets portraying a dying person lying on the table and a friend or relative sitting or standing beside them. Some took their impending demise calmly, others struggled. The chorus would rise from their chairs and, in the by-now-familiar Sellars manner, act out the words with synchronized hand gestures, taking a knee or two or lying supine on the floor, singing all the while as Gershon followed them wherever they were, conducting on the fly.
For Part II, the singers surrounded the illuminated empty table in a huddle, the stage dark around them. Finally, for Part III, they packed up the seats and pushed them to the back wall of the stage, with half the singers representing the spirits of the dead headed for the wings, where they sang their parts in antiphonal response to the “survivors” still on stage. (Reportedly, many of the singers were overcome by emotion after two days of rehearsals, triggering a talk-back session in which they spoke up about their own experiences and feelings during the pandemic.)
The pacing of all this was oh so slooooowwwww, with huge, yawning silences in between stanzas. While recorded performances of the Musikalische Exequien — of which there are many — usually occupy about half an hour of playing time, this performance took all of 80 minutes, with the long opening section going just over 55 minutes. Since there are no tempo markings or dynamics in the score, they had some justification to pretty much do whatever they wanted, whatever felt right to them, though I suspect that they are still in the experimental stage on that. As in the Lagrime production, emphatic pointing of the words and anticipation of what Sellars will have the singers do next went a long way toward keeping a listener’s interest in what could have been an agonizingly slow process.
The performance time would have been even longer had a planned sermon between Parts I and II, as written by onetime Sellars collaborator Alice Goodman (the librettist for John Adams’ Nixon in China and the still-controversial The Death of Klinghoffer) been included. However a spokesperson for the Master Chorale said that the narration was not finished and was deleted from this performance, though it would be included when the production tours in the future.
I can see a slow-motion performance like this going over particularly well in a cathedral or large church, with the voices reveling in the long reverberation time to produce a timeless, meditative, surround-sound experience. Obviously, Disney Hall is hardly a cathedral acoustically — although some here like to call it their temple for music — so the performance lacked that effect, though there was a reciprocal gain in intimacy that was closer to what Sellars and Gershon may have had in mind. Also, the antiphonal offstage singers should produce a distant, ghostly effect in contrast to the onstage singers in Part III; from my perspective, there was little difference between them.
Nevertheless, within these Douglas fir-paneled walls, the astounding, unified luster of the Master Chorale voices shone with radiance under physically and, I’m sure, emotionally demanding conditions. I can’t say whether anyone experienced a true catharsis coming away from this performance, especially if they were not of a religious persuasion. But the beauty of the singing in an acoustically welcoming hall was its own reward, a reminder that music — and life — are precious.