Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond


May 04, 2009

Grant Gershon with members of the L.A. Master Chorale
Photo: mine 2009

With all of the historic L.A. Philharmonic concerts of last month, it might be easy to overlook some of the offerings of the other resident company at Walt Disney Concert Hall. However, Sunday proved to be one of the best concerts of the soon to be concluded Los Angeles Master Chorale season which comes right on the heels of the chorale’s masterful turn in Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and Symphony of Psalms two weeks ago. And, although I was struggling with a bit of jet lag, I was very glad to be there. The program consisted of two major sacred works – Haydn’s Missa St. Bernardi von Offida, commonly known as the Heilig Mass, and Messiaen’s Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine. Although it might be hard to think of two more dissimilar pieces of sacred music, under the leadership of Grant Gershon, these works were mighty impressive and a natural fit for each other. The Haydn performance wrapped up a survey of the composer’s six late masses and, from my perspective, that was the strongest performance of any of them the LAMC has done. Not that the prior 5 were in anyway bad, but the Heilig Mass took on a particular clarity and urgency. Perhaps still feeling the afterglow of the Symphony of Psalms, I found the performance seemed somehow bigger and more magical than Haydn can sometimes be and I felt myself getting rather excited about it all.

Of course, having a large work from Messiaen in the second half of the program may have contributed somewhat to this feeling. The three liturgies in his mid-century work for a female chorus sounded nearly otherworldly. It’s set to the composer's original text with an almost hallucinatory quality. This is further enhanced by the presence of an ondes Martenot, one of the earliest of electrical instruments that was played here by Mary Chun. It’s sort of a cross between a pedal steel and a theremin, and it augments the other major instruments in the work including piano, vibraphone, and celesta. It’s wailing and electrical moaning enhanced the special quality of the piece, which was every bit as moving as the Haydn, despite some rocky playing at times from the strings. I know I harp on this all the time, but once again the chorale has the unfortunate circumstances of performing with an ad hoc orchestra that, despite adequate playing, doesn’t quite live up to the vocal ensemble's caliber. The chorale sounded great, though, and it was quite sad that the audience seemed a bit smaller than usual for reasons that aren’t completely clear to me. It was Sunday, though, and I can't think of a better way to have concluded it.


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