Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Spring Forward

June 10, 2014

David Lang Photo: Peter Serling 2009

Last fall, the Los Angeles Master Chorale kicked off its 50th season with a loving look back. It’s a stance the ensemble has maintained much of this season with shows revisiting high points of the group's repertoire and history. But when the season came to a close this Sunday, the tone was decidedly different. The LAMC, and particularly the LAMC under Music Director Grant Gershon, has a great commitment to contemporary music and this was the focus of the final program. The show consisted entirely of recent works from living composers with close relationships to the ensemble, three of which were world premieres. And if there was any doubt about where the LAMC is headed, the evening put an emphatic exclamation mark on the season with two premieres that may be among the ensemble's greatest moments. Yes, it was that good.

Sunday started well with a new commission from the LAMC’s composer-in-residence Shawn Kirchner who set four poems from Gerard Manley Hopkins to evocative and worthwhile music. There was also a recognition of the Chorale’s longstanding commitment to working with youth when the choristers were joined by local students for a recetnly performed commission from Francisco Nunez. But as appropriate as these moments were, thre was something much more remarkable waiting in the wings. The evening ended with a one-two punch of mammoth proportions.

David Lang has a long history with the Chorale and his latest gift to the group was an absolute stunner. the national anthems is exactly what it portends to be – a collection of phrases and words Lang collected from the English translations of national anthems from current UN member states. It sounds bookish and overly clever on the surface but the practical effect was shattering. Over five movements, Lang goes from a sort of tongue-in-cheek ribbing of the paranoid and bombastic undercurrent in the genre to something deeper. The blood, honor, and victory soon give way to something more humanistic. Lang is able to find the love and hope in these texts as well. The fragmented musical style that marked his award-wining the little match girl passion returns in the national anthems. But the effect this time is grander, taking on all of humanity in a touching emotionally unifying way. The blood bursts into flower and water falls from the sky. This is some of Lang’s best work. It’s a surprising blast of hope and beauty in an unlikely place and it's achingly gorgeous music to boot.

How do you follow such a momentous premiere? How about with another one. The final work on the program was a world premiere commission supported by the vocalists of the LAMC themselves. It was fitting that they received the last word in this auspicious season and they chose to do that through the music of long-time frined and colleague Esa-Pekka Salonen. Salonen has been on a musical roll in the last few years and Iri da iri continued in the trend of an every increasing body of profoundly ambitious and darkly substantive work. Salonen chose the closing lines from Dante’s Paradiso for the single movement. The author’s eyes look out on a phantasmagorical universe and all its mechanics. And what he sees is a system of faith founded in and driven by love. The vocal layering of the piece is a challenge and Salonen gave the ensemble a work worthy of their world-class talents with its complex harmonics. The grandeur of the conclusion resonated through everyone in the room. It was one of those great Disney Hall moments that sadly don’t come around as much as they used to but are still achievable. The LAMC has always been about looking forward and the new music they offered on Sunday at the end of their big anniversary season suggested that the mot exciting moments may be yet to come.


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