Los Angeles boasts several musical gems that, at least in the view of many Angelenos, rank it among the world’s great cultural centers. One of those gems is surely the Los Angeles Master Chorale. On Nov. 3, in the second concert celebrating its 50th season, the LAMC and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus accompanied by the LAMC Orchestra, all directed by LAMC’s music director, Grant Gershon, performed Verdi’s Te Deum and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana to a packed house in Disney Hall.
In his brief preconcert remarks onstage, Gershon quipped that “Carmina Burana is the answer to the question: What shall we program with Verdi’s Te Deum?” It was clear that the Te Deum is a special piece for Gershon, who has described it as one of his desert island recordings.
Gershon noted that the two pieces on the program were very different in length, omitting the obvious and huge difference in subject matter. The Te Deum is the 82 year-old Verdi’s setting of a sacred text associated with the Baptism of St. Augustine by St. Ambrose, whereas Orff’s Carmina Burana (literally Songs or Poems from Beuern, the town in Bavaria where 254 medieval poems were discovered in a monastery in the early 19th century) praises decidedly secular earthly delights, like drinking and love. In fact, the subtitle of Carmina Burana is Cantiones Profane, or profane songs.
As Gershon indicated, the Verdi was short, coming in at a little over 15 minutes. But it is a very condensed and economical piece displaying a range of emotions. As for the performance, the Master Chorale sang beautifully and, with the exception of a couple of flubbed notes, the orchestra provided solid accompaniment.
Most in the audience probably weren’t as familiar with the Te Deum and were in attendance to hear Carmina Burana. And I must say that they weren’t disappointed. The combination of the LAMC, children’s chorus, orchestra, soloists and Disney Hall was, from the beginning fortissimo introduction of the first song, “O Fortuna,” to the “O Fortuna” coda one hour later, a mesmerizing experience.
The piece was premiered in 1937, not as a concert performance but as a fully staged work. Sunday’s performance had a hint of drama provided by the three soloists, soprano Stacey Tappan, baritone José Adán Pérez and tenor Timothy Gonzales. Gonzales had the audience laughing when he waddled on stage to the sound of the trombones and bassoon mimicking the honking calls of a water fowl on land. His song, “Olim Lacus Colueram” (Once I Lived on Lakes), is about a swan who is going to be roasted and eaten. Gonzales gesticulated and cast dejected looks toward the male voices of the chorus, evoking more laughter from the audience. In fact, it was funny just to see such a large man hitting a high D and singing mostly in falsetto. Then during the third section of the cantata, “Cour d’amours” (The Court of Love), Pérez and Tappan exchanged flirtatious glances and smiles as they sang to each other. All three soloists sang their parts wonderfully.
The allure of Carmina Burana is Orff’s use of what might be called naïve musical composition, with very simple, sometimes child-like, but memorable melodies, driving rhythms and a large orchestra with a full complement of percussion instruments, including two pianos. To hear Carmina Burana performed by one of the world’s premier choruses in Disney Hall was a rare treat. It was a glorious performance, and one that would be hard to imagine equaled. On Sunday night, the Los Angeles Master Chorale demonstrated why it is one of LA’s musical gems.
—Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA
For information about upcoming LA Master Chorale concerts, visit www.lamc.org.