Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

There is a Light That Never Goes Out

April 09, 2014

Paul Salamunovich
Sometimes context and surrounding circumstances can change a single performance into something much larger than the sum of its parts. Such was the case Sunday as the Los Angeles Master Chorale continued it’s 50th anniversary season with a show highlighting the ensemble’s fervent commitment to contemporary music under music director Grant Gershon. The evening was structured around two large works by living composers – David Lang’s the little match girl passion and Steve Reich’s You Are (Variations). Both are works the chorale is very familiar with, the latter a commission for the chorale, which they have recorded and performed around the world. But what informed the evening more than any of this was another event. Earlier in the week came news of the passing of the chorale’s music director emeritus, the great Paul Salamunovich. It cannot be understated how critical Salamunovich was in making the Chorale into the world-class ensemble it is today, and the evening started appropriately with an understated and powerful tribute to him. The tribute took the form of a performance of one of the former conductor’s favorite choral works, Ave Maria by Tomas Luis da Vittoria. It was a searing moment with Gershon conducting from the first row of vocalists and leaving the conductor’s spot vacant in memory of Salamunovich. The Amen was followed by silence, the Chorale leaving the stage without a sound. It was perhaps one of the most profound and appropriately stirring tributes to the passing of an artistic colleague I’ve yet seen on the stage.

The rest of the evening proceeded as planned, but the spirit of the former Music Director and grief and joy in his wake permeated everything in the rest of the show. Lang’s passion is well known and its twist on the story of humanity’s redemption is one of the darker and most emotionally fraught moments in contemporary music. The sparse rhythmic retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Match Girl and her lonely death in the New Year’s Eve cold can be shockingly warm and beautiful. It can also be hard to listen to given the bleakness of its subject matter. But I’ve never quite heard the soaring spirit of the work’s redemptive core as much as I did on Sunday. The Chorale managed the tricky rhythmic aspects of the piece with ease, and Lang received a well-deserved and very enthusiastic reception following the performance.

After the break, by contrast, was the more celebratory You Are (Variations). Admittedly, I’ve not always been the biggest fan of Reich’s incessantly bubbly and seemingly vacuous sound. Even this piece, which is so closely associated with the LAMC, can come off as unchangingly bright. But tonight it provided the perfect counterpoint to Lang’s sad reflection. Here was the celebration of life and art that the Chorale moves on with. The effusive warmth and glow of the work filled the hall with an oscillating movement of happy pulsing music that was both reassuring and in its own way, liberating. Reich, like Lang, was present at the performance and received an enthusiastic ovation. And even if everyone had not come to the performance planning on paying their respects to Salamunovich, by the end of the night, the unity of feeling and purpose was there. This was the Master Chorale he built: one that looks forward and engages today’s world.


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