Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

I See A Light

November 14, 2011

David Lang and Grant Gershon with members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Photo: Ken Hively
I’m a sucker for symmetry. Give me a program arranged with an eye to mathematical balance or structural parallels and there is a part of me that can’t resist. Sunday’s Los Angeles Master Chorale program was just one of those shows where the interwoven structure of the program was something to admire in itself. The evening was built around two contemporary compositions, each a take on a traditional religious musical form, and paired it with a Bach motet. Both of the contemporary works, James Newton’s Mass and David Lang’s the little match girl passion were expansions of earlier versions composed for four soloists with musical accompaniment. And I would argue both pieces involved a rhythmic complexity that put Music Director Grant Gershon and his excellent singers to the test. It was the kind of program that sets the LA Master Chorale apart from their peers, and it was heartening to see such a large, interested and committed audience at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

The first half of the evening started out with Bach’s Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied paired with Newton’s Mass. The Bach was full-bodied and musical overall, though perhaps in need of a bit more precision overall. Newton’s treatment of the Mass was receiving its U.S. Premiere. It had its own internal balance to admire with the outer sets of movements paired in their own musical structure and tone, the Kyrie with the Agnus Dei and the Gloria with the Sanctus. Newton is perhaps best known for his work with jazz musicians and ensembles, and the same rhythmic influences could be felt here, although it was subtle. The music had many clear connections with an American academic modernism that was rigorously produced if not always emotionally connected. The center piece of the Mass was the Credo, a quieter passage sung by the Master Chorale’s own barihunk-in-residence, Abdiel Gonzalez. He deftly maneuvered some tricky passages here adding another noteworthy solo turn with the LAMC.

After the break and Bach’s Fürchte dich nicht, came the showpiece of the evening, Lang’s setting of Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the Little Match Girl which won the composer a Grammy and a Pulitzer Prize in 2007. This is sad material. And I mean Dancer in the Dark sad. Lang’s direct and understated use of text heightens this effect creating in increasing emotional punch over fifteen movements where bursts of recitative are interspersed with some of the most powerful vocal passages he’s written. The work was originally written for a vocal quartet with percussion and it was this version that Grant Gershon himself performed in last January as part of the Jacaranda music series in Santa Monica. The difference between that version and this one with a full chorus is striking on a number of levels. The chorus softens some of the stark edges and halting musical passages that are filled with frequent starts and stops. But at the same time the chorus gives the “commentary” passages, those where the chorus is reflecting on the emotional content of the action as opposed to moving the story forward, an additional weight they were missing in the smaller version. The effect can be devastatingly sad and the crowd was enthralled through the very end when Lang appeared to a huge ovation. This was one of those great LA Master Chorale moments where the superb singers that make up the group got a chance to shine in difficult music they are well suited for. And it was a performance to remember.


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