Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

The Holly and The Ivy

December 14, 2009

Grant Gershon and the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Orchestra
Photo: mine 2009

Recently James Oestreich opined in the New York Times about the potential benefits of not having quite so many performances of Handel’s Messiah around the holidays in favor of other more Christmas-oriented material. The question seems just as relevant here in Los Angeles where there will be four performances of that work alone in eight days just at the Walt Disney Concert Hall – two from Les Violons du Roy under Bernard Labadie and another two from the Los Angeles Master Chorale. But luckily the LAMC and conductor Grant Gershon had the same thought about alternate programming, and on Sunday presented a varied program of classic and contemporary pieces appropriate to the season. As is usually the case, the chorus was magnificent, even if the material didn’t always live up to their caliber as an ensemble. The LAMC can be modern, and certainly has a firm grip on important choral music of the past. But there’s also a populist streak in the programming that’s hard to avoid, demanding easy-access and even sing-along fare. Sunday’s concert brought all of these impulses bound together in the Christmas spirit.

The best part of the evening was a robust and clear rendition of Vaughn Williams Fantasia on Christmas Carols. There tradition of British choral music has few equals, and Vaughn Williams is an integral part of this history. His adaptations of these four traditional British carols set for strings and organ also has a big baritone solo part that was performed with some power by Abdiel Gonzalez. It was a lovely moment that seemed both nostalgic and reverent without being overly sentimental. The program opened with another strong piece, a Baroque Midnight Mass for Christmas Eve by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Charpentier took traditional French carols of his time and adapted them to a standard Latin Mass text. It had a real familiarity to it and for once the orchestral accompaniment sounded tight enough to support the excellent vocal performance from the chorale.

There were more contemporary elements in the evening as well. The LAMC has a big commitment to world music, and this program included Ariel Ramirez’ Navidad Nuestra from the 1960s, a setting of the Nativity story transplanted to South America using Latin dance rhythms and traditional instrumentation. The piece was conducted with enthusiasm by LAMC assistant conductor Ariel Quintana. It bubbled along pleasantly, but lacked a certain contemporary drama that probably speaks more to the era of its composition than anything else. But this was a Christmas concert, and given the popular leanings of the chorale, it would be hard to avoid some more commonly known music, which took the form of Conrad Susa’s A Christmas Garland. This medley of widely-known carols invited audience participation in several spots but, along with some additional carols in the encore, suffered from rather pedestrian arrangements. Still, singing like this at the Holidays is as much about a sense of community as anything else, and, to that extent, the evening could hardly be judged as anything less than successful.


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