Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

The British Are Coming

February 01, 2011

Grant Gershon and members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale Photo: mine 2011

The Los Angeles Master Chorale continued its internationally themed 2010/2011 season on Sunday night with a program entitled “London Bridges.” And while the overarching programming concept may seem a little ham-fisted, British choral music never is, and Grant Gershon and his incredible singers put together another beautiful almost entirely a cappella evening for the crowded Walt Disney Concert Hall audience. As is Gershon’s preference these days, the evening was of two minds, book-ending a series of 20th-century works with late-16th/early-17th century material connecting two sides of Britain’s rich choral music tradition. The evening started with William Byrd’s Four-Part Mass, which Gershon described as a work that was likely performed in secret among Catholics, like Byrd himself, in an often hostile Protestant England of the time. The work does indeed have a sort of quiet reserve, seemingly holding its faith tightly against daunting odds. The Chorale had a clean sound and provided rich texture in a work that avoids any high-wire dramatics.

The evening then moved into contemporary territory with Two Human Hymns from the under-appreciated Judith Weir. These settings of 17th-century texts included organ accompaniment from Paul Meier that busily oscillated in contrast to more steady, melodic lines in the chorus. There was an unnerving feeling to Weir's settings that made many in the audience, including myself, eager for more. Then came two pieces from Benjamin Britten. The Hymn to St. Cecilia was led by Associate Conductor and former member of the LAMC Lesley Leighton, who highlighted the philosophical conflicts between Britten and his librettist W.H. Auden, whose strained professional relationship was drawing to a close around the time this work was completed. Auden peppered the text with admonitions to live life to its fullest emotionally and otherwise in what Leighton posed as a sort of taunt to Britten. The composer's more thorny Missa Brevis in D followed the intermission but as with the prior work, it sounded great in the Chorale's hands.

Perhaps the highlight of the evening, though, came after the Missa Brevis with a performance of John Tavener’s haunting Song for Athene. The piece has become well known and deservedly so for its sheer beauty as an elegy. Gershon and the Chorale demonstrated a mastery of the work’s slow simmering build to a brief but radiant climax that was absolutely thrilling. After the drama subsided, though, it was back to the 17th century with a grab-bag of eight English madrigals by various composers. The vocal performance here was a bit more rough and tumble than some of the prior works. However, this is to be somewhat expected given how these folksy tunes stem from more everyday sentiments. They were great fun to listen to, however, right down to the repeated fa-la-la-las, which "lay"-ed around every turn.


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