A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

The Los Angeles Master Chorale ended its 51st season in a contemplative mood with the music of house favorites Eric Whitacre and Arvo Pärt on Sunday, May 17, at Walt Disney Concert Hall.  The Master Chorale has supported the art of both Pärt and Whitacre throughout the years, and for this concert conductor Grant Gershon alternated compositions from both composers to bring out the ancient and modern characteristics that define them. The effect was a transcendental experience oscillating between two very different compositional perspectives.

Leslie Leighton’s direction of Whitacre’s Cloudburst was one of the highlights of the evening.  Her directives were composed of a somewhat different gestural vocabulary than Gershon uses, but the singers had a finely tuned response to her. The Chorale was outstanding at voicing these beautifully dissonant passages of layer upon layer of short phrases swirling vigorously downward to unresolved suspensions. The sonorous beauty belied its difficulty in live performance. Leighton hushed the choir to cue the quiet before the storm, as bells and chimes then joined with the voices as they crescendo to a gushing surge of energy with a bass drum and metallic sheet for thunder. The random snapping of fingers and clapping of hands and bodies produced rain, gentle warm rain.  Very nice – Bravo!

Another highlight of the evening was the extraordinary organist Szymon Grab. His rich pedal tones buoyed the singers with the full resonance of the hall without overpowering them. A “feeling” of largeness and a hollow sensation of depth enveloped the listener to give a reverent affect to the occasion. Only Pärt’s music employed the organ, although it was generally sparse as he played from the auxiliary keyboard on stage. Grab was perched high amid the pipes at the master keyboard to perform Pärt’s Beatitudes. The tuning of the organ with the hall made for a genuine bodily sensation. Grab took us to the visceral depths of the space, up to the delicacy of its high frequency response, and on to the nothingness of the hall, where the only sound was of our breath in the silence. Grab’s improvisation was stunning.

Pärt’s Veni Creator cast a contemplative pall to open the event. Focused on the phonemic and prosodic elements of the text, Gershon clearly defined each phrase. Pärt’s simple style employs two intertwined streams, one arpeggiated, the other moving stepwise. Gershon and the singers reached his ideal, in that the melody and accompaniment were “one,” merged seamlessly with the text into a single voice.

The contrast with the following piece, Whitacre’s popular Water Night, was striking with its emphasis on harmony and ambience. Pärt’s Morning Star, Missa Syllabica and Cantate Domino were also performed, although not in that order. The singers and the hall melted into a beautiful blend, ideal for Pärt’s serene and chant-like “tintinnabuli” effect, and equally well-suited for Whitacre’s dense polytonal harmonies. It is an amazing choir that can produce these complex, opaquely sonorous layers.

Soprano Suzanne Waters was outstanding in her affective solo in Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque, based on a poem by Edward Esch translated into Latin. The voices fused into a shimmering presence, leaving a serene afterglow. Gershon is a whole-body communicator, his facial expressions, a unique biologic motion extending into the space around him. His gestures were kinetic and fluid, but he made use of dramatic pauses and made his endings disappear into an ethereal meditative moment. The silence was an integral voice, important in its own right.

Gershon adopted a meditative, slow-moving tempo for the chant-like lines of Saint-Chapelle, an evocative mix of plainsong embodied in Whitacre’s distinctive modern vehicle. The text describes a young woman sitting in a French chapel and hearing the angels in the windows singing the Sanctus. The men opened with a simple chant that grew into a beautiful harmonization. The women were sublime in their singing of the Sanctus with its polytonal clusters and closely voiced chords. The incredible control of the 110 singers was amazing; the sound is more than the sum of its voices.

Whitacre’s Sleep has a complicated history, with its retrofitted text, but the result is wonderful; the sensation of witnessing a sleeping giant comes to mind. The singers removed the phonetic stop from the word sleep, which was used repetitively to create a somnolent pianissimo reverie. The phenomenon was most effective, you could hear a pin drop as the voices pulsed a liquid fade into nothing.

The City and the Sea, based on a set of five poems by E.E. Cummings, was marvelous as the finale of the concert. Pianist Lisa Edwards added an energetic choppiness to the sound. Her part pivoted between the thumb and a four-finger paddle that Whitacre describes as “oven-mitt” technique using only the white keys of the piano. The songs were bright, and the mood was upbeat to end the night.

The standing ovation brought another LAMC favorite as an encore — Pärt’s beautiful Solfeggio.

Bravo! A Statement of the Art! Congratulations all around to the singers, to Gershon and the organization, and especially to outgoing President and CEO Terry Knowles — a perfect handoff to new President and CEO Jean Davidson.

~ Theodore Bell, Culture Spot LA

For more information about the LA Master Chorale, visit www.lamc.org.