Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
Far and Away
May 16, 2016
The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra wrapped up its orchestral season this weekend with a notable concert that set the stage for a very big season to come. Next fall will mark the start of Music Director Jeffrey Kahane’s 20th and final season with the orchestra and by the sounds of things this weekend, he’s leaving the ensemble in very fine form with promising times ahead. One of those legacies is LACO’s Sound Investment program where patrons contribute directly for newly commissioned works from young composers selected by Kahane. The program’s recipients are a who’s who of young American composers, and the latest work in the series received its premiere this weekend. The composer is Matthew Aucoin whose name is associated with just about every major American classical music organization these days. He’s received commissions from the Lyric Opera of Chicago and The Metropolitan Opera, and he was recently appointed artist-in-residence with the Los Angeles Opera as well as one of the Dudamel conducting fellows with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (He'll conduct Glass' Akhnaten for LAO in the fall.) Somewhere in there, he found time to compose a fifteen-minute or so, single movement work for LACO, Evidence, that received its world premiere on Saturday under his own direction. The three-sectioned “journey” has interesting moments and promised much greater things. Aucoin clearly has a grasp of operatic scale and the language of the 20th Century musical landscape. This comparatively small chamber work busted at the seems with gestures better suited for a larger scale but any work that leaves you wanting more is a worthwhile one, and the crowd seemed excited with what they’d heard.
But Aucoin wasn’t the only notable guest this weekend, and the highlight of the night belonged to pianist Marc-André Hamelin who performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 with Kahane and the orchestra. This is an early staple of Mozart’s keyboard works, but Hamelin never does anything in the most conventional way, and this LACO performance was no exception. Hamelin’s cadenzas built subtly and what started out as a little jaunt soon became a roving, wandering beauty. He veered off and away in a grand manner that didn’t come off as jarring or inappropriate but made it clear that this was a beautiful and thoughtful adventure. After the meditative glories of the second movement subsided the third arrived almost as an alarm reminding the audience that we were, in fact, not entirely removed from where we started. It was daring, beautiful playing. Hamelin followed it up with jazz-influenced Gershwin that made sure the point wasn’t lost. It was a bold and surprising performance from one the piano greats of our times. The night ended with Kahane giving a polished rendition of Schumman’s Symphony No. 2. It was a lovely way to end an evening and a penultimate season.
The years just get bigger and bigger for New York’s Bang on a Can collective. Never wanting for recognition, both the composers who founded the group and the magnificent All-Stars, the musicians who make up the group’s performance ensemble have been grabbing larger headlines in recent months even by their prior standards. David Lang popped up behind Chris Rock on this year’s Oscar telecast following his nomination for Best Song from Paolo Sorrentino’s film, Youth. (Though he was denied the common courtesy of having his work performed during the telecast.) Meanwhile his fellow colleague Julia Wolfe has been on a tear of her own recently winning last year’s Pulitzer Prize for music. It was a big and well deserved win for a “downtown” artist (in the parlance of Kyle Gann) and a rare acknowledgment by the judges of compositions by women (she is only the 6th woman to win in the Pulitzer’s history). The prize winning work, Anthracite Fields, received its West Coast premiere Sunday night with the assistance of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, their Artistic Director, Grant Gershon, and the Bang on a Can All-Stars. It was a stunner and probably the best single performance the Walt Disney Concert Hall has hosted this season. And after a weekend full of Gustavo Dudamel’s bloated, ponderous Mahler with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Wolfe and her collaborators provided a much needed aesthetic antidote on just about every level.
Anthracite Fields is an hour long oratorio about coal mining in Eastern Pennsylvania, a region very near where Wolfe herself grew up. It functions on some levels as an oral history of laborers working in these mines and can swing between elegy and a call for social and economic justice. But before diving into Wolfe’s grand choral work on Sunday, the Chorale presented a number of American folk songs from the Sacred Harp collection. More often associated with a raw sound or edge when performed in a more typical community setting, these folk songs were beautifully performed with a restraint lent by the polish of a professional ensemble. It was a smart introduction for what followed, though, in that while Anthracite Fields concerns the lives of coal miners, Wolfe did not tied the piece musically to elements of traditional folk music of the Appalachian region. Instead Wolfe uses a more contemporary language and sound inspired more by late 20th-century minimalism and rock’n’roll. Anthracite Fields unfolds over five movements starting with Foundations, which opens with low rumbling invoking a journey into the depth of the earth. This is soon replaced by the repeated names of injured coal miners, all starting with John followed by monosyllabic surnames, which provides a back drop to imagery of the formation of coal in the earth and what the miners endured to pull it out of the ground. The focus of the work pulls back over subsequent movements, including passages that set the words of labor leader John Lewis, and later builds on a couplet from early 20th-century advertisements for coal-powered trains. The piece concludes with a masterful movement called Appliances. Here the names of injured miners have been replaced with daily living functions we all participate in from turning on lights to calling a friend. All of these activities consume the power these miners have suffered for through their labor. And the final image above this sonic backdrop is of the imagined New York socialite Phoebe Snow traveling by train in the ads of a locomotive company from over a century ago. She arrives with her white dress pristine and unblemished thanks to traveling under the power of coal. This deft and insightful imagery packs a punch and it highlights Wolfe’s ability to deliver a huge amount of material with relatively minimal words.
In just over an hour, the Master Chorale and Bang on a Can All-Stars had taken us out of the ground but we were no longer able to clean the metaphorical coal dust from our own hands. The performance was accompanied with video projections designed by Jeff Sugg consisting mainly of photographs and animation of coal miners and their work environment from the early to mid- 20th century. It worked well without overwhelming the content of the musical performance. The Chorale masterfully wound around the many turns in the score from the soft moaning and whispers that laid the ground work of each movement to the raucous and rhythmic passages when the power of motion of the energy produced in this particularly American history of labor was in full operation.
It was a great night for the Chorale overall and it continued their great work with the Bang on a Can artists. Next up in the collaboration will be the release next year of the Chorale's first recording for Cantaloupe Music featuring David Lang's the national anthems and his own Pulitzer winning the little match girl passion.
It was a weekend of big gestures and major staples this weekend at Walt Disney Concert Hall. While Esa-Pekka Salonen was reminding everyone of what the Los Angeles Philharmonic has been missing for a long time with some clear-headed adult-sounding Mahler, the Los Angeles Master Chorale was doing what they do best delivering a varied and powerful version of Verdi’s Requiem. The piece is a perennial favorite; omnipresent despite the large resources that go into its performance. Opera companies and symphonies trot out this choral masterwork for anniversaries, memorial services and sometimes for absolutely no notable occasion whatsoever. But who needs an excuse with music that so magnificently straddles the world of the sacred and the more profane theatrical realm of opera. It’s a flexible piece with tons of interpretive space within its sturdy frame for conductors to run within, taking off in any number of directions. LAMC Music Director Grant Gershon did just that, having it all with this past weekend’s performances. At times the piece sounded appealingly ecclesiastical. The opening Kyrie was so reverent that the performance seemed out of place outside of a church. But while Gershon milked the stately mass version of the piece, this wasn’t a one note performance. He and the chorale would later turn to the more theatrical and often cited operatic overtones of the piece giving a performance that was equal parts sacred and profane.
It was always thrilling, of course. But the show benefited from some superb soloists who represented a mix of veterans and some very inspiring newcomers. The much loved mezzo Michelle DeYoung joined bass Morris Robinson as the more experienced members of the team and neither disappointed. Soprano Amber Wagner, who has been making a name for herself in high profile Wagner and Strauss parts in Chicago in recent seasons, soared above the assembled forces with real grace and power. But the biggest discovery for me was tenor Issachac Savage. He was unnervingly good – warm, easy and unforced with plenty of power. Easily the most exciting American tenor I’ve heard in years. More of him please, right away. It’s always nice to start the year on a high point and the Los Angeles Master Chorale did just that.
So how many youth orchestras does one city need? Whatever you consider the number to be, it seems reasonable to say that more is probably better when it comes to this category. Giving audiences a chance to hear live music while young musicians gain experience and training doesn’t really have a downside. So we were all in luck this weekend when the Young Artists Symphony Orchestra burst into existence at Royce Hall under the leadership of Artistic Director, Alexander Treger. Treger knows plenty about working with young musicians having led the American Youth Symphony as Music Director for 17 seasons in addition to his teaching activities through UCLA. After leaving AYS and retiring after more than 30 years with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Treger has launched into a new project with 100 young musicians in various stages of training from ages 15 through 26 culled from all over Los Angeles to make up the new YASO.
And, what better way for an orchestra to enter into its existence than with Mahler’s Symphony No. 2? There were no half measures for this first performance that featured the soloists, soprano Amanda Achen and mezzo-soprano Niké St. Clair. It was a big night for this ensemble coming together in public for the first time, and Treger’s certain hand cut through the clear nervous excitement among the players. Mahler is about big gestures and the players reveled in making the most demonstrative moments in the score. What lacked in precision was more than accommodated for by sheer excitement and force of will. Best of all here was a big glorious orchestra providing the real deal – live performance of one of the world’s greatest – all for free. What’s not to be excited about? Yes. More please. YASO has their second of four performances on Dec 6 at Royce Hall. It may just be one of the best deals in town.
The Los Angeles Master Chorale wrapped up its season this past weekend with one of their many strong suits – contemporary music. In his opening remarks from the stage, Music Director Grant Gershon made reference to numerous differences between the two living composers whose works were featured in the program – Arvo Pärt and Eric Whitacre. He’s got a point. Outside of a mutual love of richly textured clean harmonies, the two have almost nothing in common. They’re from different parts of the world and separated by almost forty years. The inspiration and subject matter of their choral works are also substantially different. Much of Pärt’s work grows out of medieval and Renaissance influences and is often informed by his Russian Orthodox faith. Meanwhile, the American Whitacre draws on a more contemporary, non-denominational sense of spirituality and is rife with explorations in technology and genres such as fantasy.
But the two share something much more than just writing great choral music. They also are perhaps two of the most frequently programmed living composers of choral music around, particularly by the LAMC. Their music is more than just a regular visitor here but a constant friend. So differences aside, this program — accompanied by little more than organ and piano — featured the Chorale at full force and with beautiful warm textured sound throughout. It was not a night for individuals to shine, but a time to really appreciate the quality of the ensemble as a whole whether singing in English or Latin.
In many ways the evening’s cross programming provided a nice counterpoint. Pärt’s preference for reverent simplicity set nicely against Whitacre’s penchant for wit and invention. The evening ended with Whitacre’s setting of e.e. cummings’ poems in the cycle The City and the Sea that was firmly tongue in cheek. Perhaps the highlight of the Whitacre portion of the evening was a performance of Cloudburst under Associate Conductor Lesley Leighton. The choristers produced a shimmering sound that evolved into drops and splashes of their own making in perhaps one of Whitacre’s most compelling artistic statements. But as wonderful as the Chorale was in these moments, they excelled with Pärt’s clear-headed spiritual sobriety. His Beatitudes is one of those moments where even the non-religious can touch a deeply felt spirituality through the human voice and it certainly did this weekend. And when you get right down to it, that’s part of what makes great music and great choral music in particular. And last weekend we were again reminded of how lucky we are to have that right here in Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles Master Chorale has always had a flair for the theatrical. Never outstripping their core musicianship, they aren’t afraid to stretch in terms of performance technique. It’s a quality that’s been central to some of their most memorable and talked-about performances, and this weekend the LAMC revisited one of those moments with a re-examination of Tan Dun’s Water Passion after St Matthew. It’s a work that caused quite a stir when they first performed it in 2005 and it’s arguably one of the pieces they’ve become most identified with over the last decade. It’s probably the most important of Tan Dun’s works as well. There is something magical and elemental about this piece, which fuses the passion with ritual, symbolism and a sound world springing from water and everyday percussion. Tan Dun has made much of the clicks and whirls of everyday sound often in the past, and the Water Passion takes a plunge into the splash and pop of water. The work was composed in response to Bach’s St Matthew Passion, and Tan Dun manages quite a feat maintaining a reverence and sense of ritual for the passage of time in a setting that evokes both baptism and rebirth, punctuating the libretto.
The chorus revels as much in Tan Dun’s towering vocal climaxes as they do in the many minute percussion chores they are asked to take on. The colorfully lit water basins around the stage form a sort-of cross of their own. The amplified splashing intertwines with the mix of voices and Chinese percussion instruments for an effect that is both profoundly solemn and organically spiritual not unlike the work of John Luther Adams at its best moments. There were two soloists. Baritone Stephen Bryant was both flexible and warm while soprano Delaram Kamareh made a visually arresting presence sometimes in contrast to the proceedings around her. But the performance, under the guidance of Music Director Grant Gershon was seamlessly integrated and just as mysterious and thrilling as it was when the group introduced the work to the region nearly a decade ago. It’s always great to see the LAMC succeed, and this weekend they again proved their aptitude and excellence in the sometimes thorny pathways of contemporary compositions.
Easter came a little early to the Walt Disney Concert Hall last weekend. Of course with music like Bach’s St Matthew Passion and an ensemble like the LA Master Chorale the calendar becomes a secondary issue. While the LAMC is widely celebrated for their work with contemporary composers, the depth and magnitude of the ensemble's interpretations of large masterworks of the choral repertory are world class as well. Saturday was no exception when Grant Gershon led his choristers through a performance that was at turns reverent, harrowing, and achingly beautiful. The LAMC is blessed with their ongoing relationship with the Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra who again provided period performance support. And as it has been in several other cases, the LAMC shines most brightly when paired with an orchestral ensemble who lives up to their musical quality. Gershon managed to maintain a clarity and visceral excitement from the Musica Angelica players throughout in a relationship everyone here continues to reap the benefits from.
The St Matthew Passion is rife with chances for various choristers to take solo star turns over the course of the afternoon. This time around it was a superb Jon Lee Keenan who sang the role of the Evangelist. There was an earnestness to his approach and a youthful eagerness that gave the performance a sense of urgency that can easily go missing at times in lesser hands. Bass Chung Uk Lee sang the role of Jesus with a particular lightness the complimented the other major role in the work. But it was the grand chorus passages that made this a Passion to remember and one that made the listener eager to hear the group’s latest return to another Passion later this season, the Tan Dun, Water Passion which will take the stage on April 11 and 12. The performance also served to whet the appetite for some exciting events to come from the Chorale in coming seasons, which were announced at the time. Perhaps most enticing is a multi-year project revisiting some of Handel’s less well known oratorios, many of which will include starry soloists from various corners of the opera world. There’s much, much more ahead so be sure to stay tuned.
You should see the double bill that LA Opera just opened on Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. It’s not just that it is one of the best productions the company has mounted in the last four years. It’s also evidence that the company has without question transitioned into a new artistic era. The evening pairs two short works that couldn’t be much further apart historically in the opera repertory. The heroines of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Bartok’s 20th-century masterpiece Duke Bluebeard’s Castle may be centuries apart musically but love doesn’t fare much better for either of them in stories where life is the cost of love whether hearts are broken or not. What makes this production more than the sum of its parts, though, is the direction of Australian Barry Kosky. Kosky’s clever, edgy vision—that has been very successful throughout Europe in his role as intendant at Komische Oper Berlin—has been seen here before in the company’s wildly popular staging of Mozart’s The Magic Flute last Fall. He has again created a sharp, attractive, and thoughtful staging that presses buttons and is impossible to ignore. But more than that, this second big success for Kosky here in Los Angeles makes him something of a house provocateur. It was a role that Achim Freyer played for the company throughout the 2000s during the tenure of former company Artistic Director and Chief Operating Officer Edgar Baitzel. Freyer produced some of the most beautiful and thought provoking stagings over that decade—productions that are still discussed years later with great passion among the opera-going faithful.
But a lot has changed in the last five years since Baitzel’s untimely death in the national art scene, and LA Opera has been in transition on many fronts. Economic realities have made the company leaner and meaner but things under current President and CEO Christopher Koelsch are clearly no less ambitious and inventive than they were a decade ago under Baitzel. In some ways, Kosky might be considered Koelsch’s Freyer, bringing the edgiest of opera visions to LA Opera. Of course, that’s an unfair comparison, but Kosky’s work and relationship with the company does signal the fact that LA Opera continues to be a spirited, inventive and risk-taking organization. It’s survived recent "fires" and is roaring full steam ahead.
That steam is quite literal in Kosky’s double bill. Duke Bluebeard’s Castle makes good use of it as Judith opens the fifth door to reveal her new husband’s great estate. As the orchestra swells into Bartok’s giant C major chord, Bluebeard, sung here by Robert Hayward, and his three doppelgangers are engulfed in huge jets of steam onstage. There are no physical doors here for Judith to open or keys to wrangle. However, these mirror-Bluebeards in their contemporary dress suits spout gold dust, water and flowers from their hands to represent the treasures and horrors Judith finds. All of this takes place on a slanted circular starkly white turntable that leaves both vocalists completely exposed for the entire course of the piece. It’s a very physical performance—one that focuses on the emotional relationship between the two lovers. Claudia Mahnke’s Judith is no wilting flower. Kosky has envisioned her as a more forceful, self-possessed woman who will immerse herself totally in Bluebeard’s world no matter the cost and often despite her husband’s palpable physical discomfort as he contorts and falls in response to her repeated treaties. This is a Bluebeard that is sure to leave a bruise.
Love claims other victims in this staging. Dido doesn’t fare much better and, as he does with Judith, Kosky takes a very different approach to this Queen of Carthage. Here Dido is more rash and impulsive giving up on Aeneas and declaring his betrayal before he’s even had a chance to act on his divine orders. She is less the victim of Aeneas or fate, but actively hurtling to her doom nonetheless. Kosky places the action at the foot of the stage, the entire cast seated at times along the length of a huge bench. The chorus in their hodgepodge of period costumes (or in two specific instances just G-strings and hats) occasionally abandon the stage for the pit joining the smaller Baroque size orchestra. Kosky mines the work for some quirky laughs, particularly through the unusual sexually inappropriate boundaries of the three witches who anticipate the lovers’ downfall. The three countertenors in these roles—G. Thomas Allen, Darryl Taylor, and Brenton Ryan—almost run away with the evening with their drag shenanigans. But that isn’t about to happen under Kosky’s eye. Dido and Aeneas is given a slowly burning intro and denouement to parallel the orchestra writing of Bartok’s opera, creating another parallel between the two short works on the bill. In the end, Dido is left alone onstage gasping for air for nearly 10 minutes as choristers and orchestra exit one by one leaving her truly alone to finally expire in silence. It’s a haunting image; just one of many that populate the evening.
Musically there is much to recommend the evening. Many of the soloists are first rate including Mahnke and Paula Murrihy whose Dido sears when needs to. Kateryna Kasper is a spirited, forceful Belinda as well. Steven Sloane conducts the orchestra, who were surely suffering whiplash from the hundreds of years of musical history separating these works. The period techniques and instruments that were used to augment Dido and Aeneas were a tough fit overall and it wasn’t until the Bartok that the players got their full chance to shine. Overall, though, this evening of lovers lost was a reason to rejoice. It was a great performance from a company that has a lot on its mind and is heading in the right direction. They’ve weathered the storms of recent years beautifully, unbowed and looking to the future. Now is the time to see where they are heading. Dido and Aeneas and Duke Bluebeard’s Castle are onstage for five more performances through November 15.
The Los Angeles Master Chorale kicked off its 51st season under Artistic Director Grant Gershon last Sunday night and wasted no time setting the tone for the next 50 years with an ambitious piece of newer music on the program that involved a multi-media presentation alongside the ensembles’ world-class musicianship. A sub theme this season are passion stories. Two LAMC favorites – Bach’s St Matthew Passion and Tan Dun’s Water Passion will feature prominently later on next year. But in another twist on the topic, the Chorale performed Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light to start fall on Sunday. This very popular work has become Einhorn’s calling card since its premiere and has been heard all over the world in a variety of formats. While Einhorn has produced a wide variety of compositions over his career, he is particularly known for his music for films, and Voices of Light honors that relationship beautifully. The piece draws direct inspiration from Carl Dreyer’s film, The Passion of Joan of Arc. And while the choral work can serve as a sort-of soundtrack, it just as easily stands alone as either an oratorio or operatic endeavor.
On Sunday, Gershon and his choristers stuck closely to the soundtrack interpretation with Voices being performed in conjunction with a screening of Dreyer’s masterpiece. However, this isn’t to say that presenting the choral work alongside the film is necessarily a perfect fit. Despite a wonderful, rich, and textured interpretation of the score last Sunday, the simultaneous screening of the film with the choral performance created issues. First, there are elements and passages from the libretto that do not coincide with the ongoing action in Dreyer’s film. The text, an assemblage of Latin and French sources including some of Joan’s own writing, is arranged artfully if not in a directly narrative way. With the film running, the musical score often lost out with the visual images dominating the audience's consciousness in the moment. This was especially true of the admirable performances turned in by all of the Master Chorale's soloists. Though their splendid voices could be heard, focusing on them in the wake of the giant face of Dreyer's star, Falconetti, was frustratingly difficult.
At the same time, Einhorn’s musical experience with film was clearly on display throughout. The score is both modern and minimal and it effectively underscores the emotional elements of the film. The score references several significant periods in the history of chorale music, shifting gears with ease. But this season opener despite its beauty and simplicity too often got left on the side lines. Nevertheless, it certainly left the audience looking forward to more in this new season with promises of great work around every corner.
Last fall, the Los Angeles Master Chorale kicked off its 50th season with a loving look back. It’s a stance the ensemble has maintained much of this season with shows revisiting high points of the group's repertoire and history. But when the season came to a close this Sunday, the tone was decidedly different. The LAMC, and particularly the LAMC under Music Director Grant Gershon, has a great commitment to contemporary music and this was the focus of the final program. The show consisted entirely of recent works from living composers with close relationships to the ensemble, three of which were world premieres. And if there was any doubt about where the LAMC is headed, the evening put an emphatic exclamation mark on the season with two premieres that may be among the ensemble's greatest moments. Yes, it was that good.
Sunday started well with a new commission from the LAMC’s composer-in-residence Shawn Kirchner who set four poems from Gerard Manley Hopkins to evocative and worthwhile music. There was also a recognition of the Chorale’s longstanding commitment to working with youth when the choristers were joined by local students for a recetnly performed commission from Francisco Nunez. But as appropriate as these moments were, thre was something much more remarkable waiting in the wings. The evening ended with a one-two punch of mammoth proportions.
David Lang has a long history with the Chorale and his latest gift to the group was an absolute stunner. the national anthems is exactly what it portends to be – a collection of phrases and words Lang collected from the English translations of national anthems from current UN member states. It sounds bookish and overly clever on the surface but the practical effect was shattering. Over five movements, Lang goes from a sort of tongue-in-cheek ribbing of the paranoid and bombastic undercurrent in the genre to something deeper. The blood, honor, and victory soon give way to something more humanistic. Lang is able to find the love and hope in these texts as well. The fragmented musical style that marked his award-wining the little match girl passion returns in the national anthems. But the effect this time is grander, taking on all of humanity in a touching emotionally unifying way. The blood bursts into flower and water falls from the sky. This is some of Lang’s best work. It’s a surprising blast of hope and beauty in an unlikely place and it's achingly gorgeous music to boot.
How do you follow such a momentous premiere? How about with another one. The final work on the program was a world premiere commission supported by the vocalists of the LAMC themselves. It was fitting that they received the last word in this auspicious season and they chose to do that through the music of long-time frined and colleague Esa-Pekka Salonen. Salonen has been on a musical roll in the last few years and Iri da iri continued in the trend of an every increasing body of profoundly ambitious and darkly substantive work. Salonen chose the closing lines from Dante’s Paradiso for the single movement. The author’s eyes look out on a phantasmagorical universe and all its mechanics. And what he sees is a system of faith founded in and driven by love. The vocal layering of the piece is a challenge and Salonen gave the ensemble a work worthy of their world-class talents with its complex harmonics. The grandeur of the conclusion resonated through everyone in the room. It was one of those great Disney Hall moments that sadly don’t come around as much as they used to but are still achievable. The LAMC has always been about looking forward and the new music they offered on Sunday at the end of their big anniversary season suggested that the mot exciting moments may be yet to come.
While a less-informed observer might be tempted to think that the youth orchestra movement in Los Angeles began following the arrival of Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel, nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps the first and foremost exhibit against this fallacy would be the American Youth Symphony, which will be celebrating its 50th Anniversary season this fall. AYS, which culls its members from a variety of schools and conservatories around town, continues to be one of the absolute best values in classical music anywhere. The concerts, though ticketed, are free for attendees providing a top notch concert experience to an audience that might not be able to afford to attend an orchestra performance of this caliber otherwise. AYS’ Music Director and Conductor, Alexander Treger, has been helming the orchestra since 1998, and his tradition of exciting, exuberant performances will continue into this coming anniversary season.
Two weeks ago AYS concluded its most recent season with an excellent performance designed to highlight it ensemble’s history and mission. The show was part of the orchestra’s Alumni Project where one of the group’s illustrious former members returns to celebrate AYS's legacy to the musical world. That is no small matter. AYS alumni populate major American orchestras of all stripes and make up significant percentages of most of the major performing ensemble here in Los Angeles.
This evening’s featured alumnus was violinist Nigel Armstrong who won 4th prize at the 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition. Armstrong was featured in the first half of the evening, which focused heavily on French works including Chausson’s Poeme and Saint-Saens’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. There’s nothing quite as enjoyable as seeing a soloist who is as well loved by the hosting ensemble as he is so technically skilled, and Armstrong quickly won over the audience with an articulate spirited performance. The rest of the night was devoted to Strauss’ An Alpine Symphony. Treger elicited a solid well-structured performance of this Romantic landmark work. It played to the orchestra’s strengths and most of all allowed the spirited excitement of the players to shine through. There will be more of these wonderful performances starting this fall when the ensemble returns for its anniversary season.
Sometimes context and surrounding circumstances can change a single performance into something much larger than the sum of its parts. Such was the case Sunday as the Los Angeles Master Chorale continued it’s 50th anniversary season with a show highlighting the ensemble’s fervent commitment to contemporary music under music director Grant Gershon. The evening was structured around two large works by living composers – David Lang’s the little match girl passion and Steve Reich’s You Are (Variations). Both are works the chorale is very familiar with, the latter a commission for the chorale, which they have recorded and performed around the world. But what informed the evening more than any of this was another event. Earlier in the week came news of the passing of the chorale’s music director emeritus, the great Paul Salamunovich. It cannot be understated how critical Salamunovich was in making the Chorale into the world-class ensemble it is today, and the evening started appropriately with an understated and powerful tribute to him. The tribute took the form of a performance of one of the former conductor’s favorite choral works, Ave Maria by Tomas Luis da Vittoria. It was a searing moment with Gershon conducting from the first row of vocalists and leaving the conductor’s spot vacant in memory of Salamunovich. The Amen was followed by silence, the Chorale leaving the stage without a sound. It was perhaps one of the most profound and appropriately stirring tributes to the passing of an artistic colleague I’ve yet seen on the stage.
The rest of the evening proceeded as planned, but the spirit of the former Music Director and grief and joy in his wake permeated everything in the rest of the show. Lang’s passion is well known and its twist on the story of humanity’s redemption is one of the darker and most emotionally fraught moments in contemporary music. The sparse rhythmic retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Match Girl and her lonely death in the New Year’s Eve cold can be shockingly warm and beautiful. It can also be hard to listen to given the bleakness of its subject matter. But I’ve never quite heard the soaring spirit of the work’s redemptive core as much as I did on Sunday. The Chorale managed the tricky rhythmic aspects of the piece with ease, and Lang received a well-deserved and very enthusiastic reception following the performance.
After the break, by contrast, was the more celebratory You Are (Variations). Admittedly, I’ve not always been the biggest fan of Reich’s incessantly bubbly and seemingly vacuous sound. Even this piece, which is so closely associated with the LAMC, can come off as unchangingly bright. But tonight it provided the perfect counterpoint to Lang’s sad reflection. Here was the celebration of life and art that the Chorale moves on with. The effusive warmth and glow of the work filled the hall with an oscillating movement of happy pulsing music that was both reassuring and in its own way, liberating. Reich, like Lang, was present at the performance and received an enthusiastic ovation. And even if everyone had not come to the performance planning on paying their respects to Salamunovich, by the end of the night, the unity of feeling and purpose was there. This was the Master Chorale he built: one that looks forward and engages today’s world.