A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

The Los Angeles Master Chorale deservedly was on proud display at Walt Disney Concert Hall on June 22, celebrating a musical family reunion of sorts honoring Morten Lauridsen and the 20th anniversary of his 1997 masterpiece Lux Aeterna. Thursday’s performance was technically an encore to the regular season, as this special gala also ended the Chorus America national conference taking place in Los Angeles. The evening was especially significant as Chorus America’s CEO, Catherine Dehoney, announced the induction of the Los Angeles Master Chorale into the exclusive American Classical Music Hall of Fame.

Lauridsen, who has been a professor at the USC Thornton School of Music for over 50 years, is among the most distinguished choral composers living today. He laid the groundwork for a generation of successors that have expressed a unique Los Angeles sound associated with the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Lux Aeterna is arguably one of the most popular choral works of our time, performed in whole and in part in halls throughout the world.

Artistic Director Grant Gershon’s selections for the rest of the program were personal in ethos and eclectic in style, with music from LAMC friends such as Esa-Pekka Salonen, Billy Childs, Moira Smiley, Eric Whitacre and Shawn Kirchner. Each composition related in some fashion to Lauridsen’s themes of hope, love, time and gratitude.

This performance of Lux Aeterna occupied the second half of the program and was unique in that Gershon employed the original small orchestra in place of the pipe organ; this version had not been performed in Disney Hall before. The orchestral accompaniment was generally unassuming with its gentle thematic dialogue, but some aspects of the overall impression were affected. The winds and strings created a more diverse timbre palate, and the overall texture was more heterogeneous, perhaps brighter, and more expressive. On the other hand, the Disney Hall organ is capable of hitting the extraordinary resonant depths of the space; that subtle low-frequency power was missed. The larger ensemble also required Gershon to alter his conducting style, with smaller, more focused movements of his hands when directing the singers. The swells of energy were still rapturous, however, and huge dynamic shifts made the Agnus Dei astounding in its strength and affect. The drama of the extended pianissimo final cadence left us completely stilled. The stunned audience, a capacity crowd of singers from around the country, slowly rose to a standing ovation and repeated bows.

Bravo to Morten Lauridsen on this 20th anniversary of Lux Aeterna — a masterpiece for the ages!

Gershon began the program with Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Iri da Iri, a piece based on the final canto of Dante’s Paradiso and commissioned by the members of the Master Chorale in 2014 for their 50th anniversary.  Its lush harmonies, albeit atonal, are anchored by slowly shifting drones.  Salonen has the uncanny ability to turn dissonance into consonance, and the singers were magnificent in overcoming the technical and artistic demands placed on them.

Billy Childs was a student of Lauridsen, and his piece, In Gratitude, was commissioned by Classical Movements, as part of the Eric Daniel Helms New Music Program. This performance was its world premiere (week) and related to Lux Aeterna with a poem about gratitude for love.  The emotional path was meandering and at times intense, but it took on a personality all its own, like a pleasantly quirky friend.

Another world premiere, Time in Our Voices by Moira Smiley, was conducted by Jenny Wong, a USC-connected assistant conductor of the LAMC. The piece was interesting in that it included overlays of recorded cell phone conversations by people at different points in the lifespan from young to elderly talking about time. Smiley’s composition was engaging with an accessible modern sound. Wong stood in a more-or-less stable stance, although, she was still quite expressive and exact, relying on her upper body for control. Her interpretation of “impatience” as an aspect of the composition was great.

Composer-in-Residence Eric Whitacre conducted the West Coast premiere of his new collaboration, I Fall, based on texts by Charles Anthony Silvestri and written in memory of his wife’s death from ovarian cancer in 2005. Silvestri was in attendance and personally described their experience in the emergency room together and his time afterwards. The affect was thus primed and personal, and the music was extraordinary in its match to the theme. Whitacre was statuesque in his poses and gestures of long sweeping lines. The music rose and fell breath-like in its slow, rhythmic undulation. Dense microtonal swaths of sound rolled wave-like in ascending and descending pitches. The basses faded subtly into the ambience to leave us gently in the depths at the end. This extremely emotive piece penetrated my heart deeply.

Heavenly Home, arranged by LAMC tenor Shawn Kirchner, was a rousing finish and complement to the pre-intermission program that effectively lifted the spirit after the touching performance of I Fall. The triptych included Unclouded Day, Angel Band and Hallelujah. Kirchner knows well the strong points of the LAMC and in his arrangements showcased those aspects in a wonderful piece of Americana in a Gospel style. A favorite of the singers, the sound was spirited and lively, and the comfortable old-time sense of happiness was wonderful.

Bravo to the Master Chorale for their outstanding accomplishments and the recognition they so heartily deserve. This concert was testament to the quality and heart of our Los Angeles choral tradition and showed why the Master Chorale is one of America’s finest.

Theodore Bell, Culture Spot LA

For more about LAMC, visit www.lamc.org.