Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Americas and the Americans Who Love Them

May 01, 2012

Alberto Grau
While I'm in New York this week, a number of OWA's team of roving eyes were out and about. Bon vivant and man-about-town Ben Vanaman stopped by the Los Angeles Master Chorale's trip down south on Sunday.

Venezuela’s venerated music education network known as “El Sistema” is certainly familiar to us here in L.A. since the arrival of Gustavo Dudamel as Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But Sunday night’s performance by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, titled “A Choral Tour From the Andes to the Sea,” explored the less heralded but no less important fact that Venezuela has become an important center of choral performance and composition, as well. But while most of the works performed on the evening’s program were created by Venezuelan composers, the program acknowledged a musical dialogue between Venezuela and her neighbors by including selections from other Latin composers, past and present, in music honoring the region’s historic and continued significance as a center of choral composition.

The performance took us first to Peru in a startling piece possibly attributed to 17th Century Franciscan friar Juan Perez Bocanegra. Titled Hanacpachap cussicuinin, it marries Western compositional techniques to the Incan language Quechua in celebrating the heavens, but with exotic percussive effects not generally found in Western liturgical music. Next was the lovely Magnificat Quarti Toni by Gutierre Fernandez Hidalgo, a chapelmaster who emigrated from Spain to the New World in the late 16th Century. This is music of sometimes translucent beauty that evokes the lush natural setting of the composer’s adopted land. In fact, the natural and spiritual realms are often equally represented in the music selected for this program, the choir’s lustrous timbre reflecting this duality to shimmering effect.

Shifting gears before intermission, the Chorale premiered a work titled The Singing Mountaineers. Composed by San Francisco-based Gabriela Lena Frank, a member of Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, the piece is dedicated to Master Chorale Music Director Grant Gershon and to Huayucaltia, an instrumental ensemble noted for fusing Andean, African, jazz, rock, and classical styles. Here, the group accompanied the chorale in Frank’s seven part composition based on songs of the Quechan people collected by 20th Century author Jose Maria Arguedas. The chorale proved up to the demands placed on them in delineating the haunting text while one savored the ensemble’s playing on instruments familiar and foreign. The work in fact concluded with an instrumental epilogue that tapered off into ghostly silence. Composer Frank was on hand to receive deserved applause.

The program’s second half featured a variety of short contemporary pieces, tenor soloist Pablo Cora beautifully etching the folk rhythms of the lovely first work, Antonio Estevez’s Mata del anima sola (Tree of the lonely soul). Alberto Grau, the eminence grise of the Venezuelan choral scene, arranged the haunting Caramba (Good Gracious, My Love). His original composition Kasar mie la gaji (The earth is Tired) followed, a rollicking romp given a thorough workout by the chorale under the direction of its Assistant Conductor Lesley Leighton.  The heavily syncopated Carpuela Linda (Lovely Carpuela) by Ecuadoran Milton Tadeo Carcelen, was quite rousing in its own way, the only work on the program’s second half not composed by a Venezuelan.  Maria Guinand’s Y se quedaran los pajaros cantando (And the birds will go on singing. . .), with soprano Rachelle Fox providing a lilting solo, was followed by the program’s most rambunctious number, Oscar Galian’s Salseo, like many of the other works drawing on Latin rhythms for effect. Cristian Grases, who studied with Grau and teaches choral music at USC, was on hand for the performance of his two part choral work Visiones del Llano (Visions of the Plains), the spirited "Fiesta" preceding the ethereally beautiful “Amanecer (Dawn).”

The program concluded on a high note with Cesar Alejandro Carillo’s Oiga, Compae (Hey, Compadre), its mix of prelude and fugue with a musical theme from the Venezualan vernacular “creating a sort of interplay,” as noted by Mr. Gershon in the program notes, “that speaks to the incredible amount of creativity and vitality among these composers.” Hear, hear. This was the penultimate concert of the Master Chorale’s 2011-2012 season, and one looks forward to their final concert, a tribute to composer Henryk Gorecki, while being reminded during this concert what a musical gift the chorale is to our city.


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