Review: L.A. Master Chorale, ‘Organ Extravaganza,’ Oct. 21, 2012
Conductor Grant Gershon and the LA Master Chorale promised an “Organ Extravaganza” for its 49th season opener—a title which might put any audience in fear of a loud, obvious and “churchy” evening. Those, like this reviewer, who are always wary of organs, might have hesitated.
The music we heard, however, was as cerebral and challenging as it was big and exuberant. And while the selections were all religious, they were far from churchy. The organ added to the efforts of the Master Chorale—surely one of the world’s finest vocal institutions—without drowning it in “extravaganza.”
The first half opened regally with Gerald Finzi’s God is Gone Up, with words by Edward Taylor. Finzi (1901-1956), a composer of Jewish ancestry, first studied music at Christ Church High Harrogate. By his thirties, Finzi had lost his father, three brothers, as well as his teacher, and became an agnostic—but he would nevertheless grow into one of England’s well-loved song writers.
The organ opens the piece with fanfare, as the voices fortissimo and in unison, definitely declare a “triumphant shout.” Effective harmonic imitation follows on “singing praise,” with legato melodic soft passages on “Heaven courtiers fly,” and the opening stanza rounding out this majestic piece. Organist Paul Meier pushed the big Disney Hall organ (now just eight years old) to its limits, but without losing musical definition. Bravo.
The second piece, Bright Mass with Canons, by young composer Nico Muhly (1981-), is aailable on the La Master Chorale’s CD, “A Good Understanding” (Decca 2010). Here the “canons” are vocal volleys, and the piece is filled with tremendous, antiphonal choral writing, and Gershon was highly clever to position the chorale in a ‘stereo’ formation with altos and sopranos standing on both sides of stage front, and men toward the back. Like others, this reviewer did have trouble understanding the first movement’s short, rhythmic flourishes on the organ, played deftly by Kimo Smith. These interjections didn’t seem to make sense either musically or in connection with the text. Sometimes they just seemed like interruptions to the fine choral passages.
Muhly’s unnecessary flourishes reccurred with a repetitive, almost “poplike” organ rhythm in the second movement, on the words “Thou alone art the Lord.” These interjections gave way, however, to a most effective, echoing Sanctus, while the Agnus Dei filled the hall with great organ pedals below the antiphonal women, ending the piece peacefully –-just as the text describes.
Gershon described Estonian Arvo Part’s piece, The Beatitudes, as “introspective, but with phenomenal emotion behind it.” This was the first piece that Part (1935-) wrote to an English text. It is “tintinnabulation,” part of Part’s method of composing, at its best. The notes of the triad gradually unfold into rich sonorous sounds reminiscent of bells. Here, what resulted was a slow but steady vocal crescendo of binary, homophonic proclamations with added harmonic dissonances on important words such as “mercy and “children” to an exalted ending on “Amen,” with the organ’s final rejoicing as a sort of release to the chorus’s internal combustion. The organ then slowly descends, both sonically and figuratively.
Gershon provided excellent direction here. For example, at the climax on “Rejoice,” he aggressively stepped back and proclaimed the rejoicing from his standpoint. Faster than speeds that I’ve heard on recordings, Grant kept it moving, so the energy was enthralling.
The subject of the “Listen Up!” talk prior to the concert, and the only composer in attendance was Paul Mealor (1975-), who composed Ubi Caritas for the 2011 Royal Wedding. The audience enthusiastically enjoyed this beautiful short a cappella piece with terrifically strong bass lines, based on, as Mealor states, “an ancient chant blended with 21st century harmonies.” The pure, angelic tone of the boy soprano on the last line of the text, “And may we love each other with a sincere heart,” was precious.
Rounding off this first half, Gershon passed the baton to the confident leadership of Associate Conductor, Lesley Leighton whose large and full direction of I was Glad by Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918) precisely clarified why this piece is used for Coronations.
The second half of the program highlighted the LA Children’s chorus in David Willcocks’ Psalm 150. Fifty-five young singers under the terrifically precise and energetic leadership of Conductor Anne Tomlinson sung with pure, beautiful tone and diction.
The second half of the evening seemed less well formed than the first, but offered its own high points.
Tarik O’Regan (1978-), another young English composer, provided welcoming new textures with his interplay of harp, percussion and organ in his Dorchester Canticles, created reminiscently of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. However, sometimes the instruments were overbearing here, as in the second Muhly piece played in this half. Here too, O’Regan’s instrumental rhythmic dances seemed a little out of place.
The performance of Kurt Weill’s theatrically-inspired Kiddush was performed with excellent Hebrew pronunciation, with tenor Daniel Chaney delivering a dramatic and inspired ‘cantorial’ solo. He definitely appreciated the best applause of the night, but like many, I was wondering why this piece was selected—being so out of character with the rest of the evening. In context to the rest of the program, perhaps some other Jewish work, like the sacred Mizmorei Tehillim (Songs of Psalms) by Israeli composer Tzvi Avni would have been a better fit.
Musical chairs continued, as the choristers mixed it up for the last piece of the evening, Judith Weir’s Ascending into Heaven. Cleverly using upward glissandi in the voices, radiant harmonies, and exceptional organ playing by Paul Meier, the close provided smiles all around.
The ovation however, was fulfilled with the encore, the ever-crowd-pleasing English hymn, Come, Thou Fount—played big. An extravaganza, indeed.