Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Into the Night

March 25, 2007

Christopher Rouse, Grant Gershon, Sanford Sylvan
LAMC and orchestra. Photo: mine

I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night.
- John Milton, Sonnet XXIII

The Los Angeles Master Chorale has a taste for premieres, and tonight they got a doozy - the world premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Requiem. Requia are not usually my favorite genre of music mostly because no matter how dark they get, they never seem to be quite dark enough for my taste. There’s always too much piety and light mixed in, overcompensating for the drama of the Deus Irae. It appears however that Rouse may have written the Requiem I have been waiting for. It’s dark. Very dark. Shostakovich’s 14th “symphony” dark.

This is not your parent’s heroic, noble, resting-in-peace requiem, but a mournful, pleading, day-of-reckoning requiem. In some part this may be due to the emphasis on what the composer refers to as an“everyman” approach to the text. In the Britten War Requiem manner, Rouse has set both the latin text (which he takes from the Berlioz adaptation) and adds a number of poems from Michelangelo, Ben Johnson, John Milton, Siegfried Sassoon, and Seamus Heaney. All of these poems were first person accounts or reflections on the death of a close loved one and were set as baritone solos. Sanford Sylvan imbued these stories of lost sons, fathers, wives, and brothers with such pain that I was tearful on more than one occasion. In fact the piece opens with his acappella performance of Heaney’s Mid-Term Break where a young man recounts coming home for his younger brother’s funeral. The net affect of these poem settings is to keep bringing the work back to stories of personal loss. Because this keeps the work grounded in the common human experience of loss, it simultaneously makes the work in some ways the most worldly and secular requiem I’ve heard. While there are definitely moments of release and redemption at the end, in Rouse’s Requiem everybody hurts, sometimes.

And then there is the music itself. While the solos are often lyrical and lovely, they are a minority of the work and there are virtually no orchestral passages of any significant length. I estimate that well over 85% is very rigorous choral writing that seems fiendishly difficult. The LA Master Chorale is without a doubt the hero of this evening. The double chorus was on its feet virtually the whole time much of it singing and at times shouting over loud passages heavy with dramatic percussion. The work even had a body count with at least one pregnant chorus member having to take a seat about 40 minutes in for the remainder of the program. Even the quiet passages involved wide ranges and sometimes complicated rhythms and whispering. The Los Angeles Children’s Chorus was also involved and performed admirably.

This is challenging music that is not afraid not to be pretty about not so pretty topics and often has an otherworldly air. The program notes speak much of the influence of Berlioz and Britten on the work, but it would seem to me that the other name that the greater musical debt may be owed to is Gyorgy Ligeti. But here in the darkness, there are many beauties. This is a profound work that definitely deserves multiple hearing and certainly future performances. In Rouse’s Requiem we are united in our darkest moments, and while this may not be ultimately liberating, it is definitely a source of comfort.

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