A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Grant Gershon

The sound of the LA Master Chorale in Disney Concert Hall is simply extraordinary, and to hear the breadth and depth of this unique musical tradition performed by LA’s best chamber singers was an experience to remember.

Grant Gershon, celebrating his 10th year as director of the Master Chorale, brought his unique expertise with French repertoire to the podium Sunday, Nov. 7, with a program of a cappella works that juxtaposed the sacred and chanson styles of the 16th and 20th centuries.

Ravel’s Trois Chansons were inspired.  Gershon and the singers, especially soprano Harriet Fraser, effectively evoked the feelings of angst and whimsy.  The text was written by Ravel himself as he waited to enter the First World War, and its chanson roots tap the characteristic shifting meters and delicate contrapuntal style of his tradition.  Fraser was magnificent in her moving interpretation of “Trois beaux oiseaux du Paradis.”  Her plaintive tone over the speechless choral background was affective in an eerie way.

The 16th-century chansons were fun for all.  The delightful Et la la la (Ninot le Petit) immediately heralded a new genre for the rest of the night, and the naughty in the audience surely enjoyed Pierre Passereau’s Il est bel et bon. The vocal control and detail to articulation were ever-present in the wordplay and made for a delightful, crisp effect.

A highpoint of the evening were the “all-time hits” of the 16th-century chanson industry — Claudin de Sermisy’s setting  of  Martin menait son pourceau by Clément Marot and, of course, Janequin’s Le Chant des Oiseaux (whose “birds” were fun to hear) — a technical and artistic triumph, and delightful music.

In the first half of the program, Gershon intertwined the centuries in a unique arrangement to compare the music across the eons.  I would have favored a less academic approach, especially wanting to hear the 1960s Duruflé intact; but then the Josquin Mass could pale in a venue this size. Then again, the venue is the best musical “church” Josquin could have hoped for, and the promise of the evening was immediately obvious in opening with Duruflé’s familiar Ubi caritas (“Where charity and love are, there is God”).

Gershon’s animated direction found a fluid path through the ever-evolving meters and intricate counterpoint to connect us with a beautifully prosodic language of rhythm.   The sopranos and altos were super in “Tota pulchra es” (“You are all-beautiful”), and the emphatically rhythmic climax of “Tu es Petrus” (“You are Peter”) was joyfully animated and stood out among the works of the first half of the program.  The singers evoked a comfortable sensation of peace and serenity with the “Tantum ergo.”  The music gently drew our attention with its sustained voices and rudimentary harmony.  Gershon led a calming ebb and flow that dissipated into the low-pitched resonance of the final breath of the amen — it left me stilled in a unique moment.

The beautiful cadences heard throughout the evening, each and every time, captured my attention.  Each was skillfully executed, often ending pianissimo in perfectly hollow intervals that resonated delicately and persistently in the acoustical bliss of our Hall.

Josquin’s 1510 Marian mass, Missa de Beata Virgine, was beautifully sung, so much so, that I can only imagine what its effect may have been on worshipers in situ.  The surprising modal minor cadence of the Credo was a vivid standout moment in context and the intonation was perfect.  The Sanctus was hauntingly beautiful as the five voice parts sang continuously without typical phrasing; yet the overall effect was one of lightness in the face of an intentional harmonic purity. In contrast, in the closing Agnus Dei, the chant was footloose and the treatment was akin to his chansons, which made for a great segue to the delightful chansons of the second half of the program.

The night concluded with Ravel’s rhythmic Ronde.  The Chorale was rousing in its rise to our frenetic sendoff.  The enthusiastic audience called Gershon back repeatedly, and the encore reprise of Il est bel et bon was a sweet gestural goodbye peck.  A wonderful experience.  Bravo!