Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Music, Music, Music

February 23, 2009

Grant Gershon, Nico Muhly and the L.A. Master Chorale
Photo: mine 2009

While I haven’t yet seen the new Das Rheingold at LA Opera (that will have to wait until Wednesday this week), I did have a weekend filled with music from a variety of other notable ensembles reminding us that Wagner was not the only game in town. Probably the highlight of the weekend was the latest Los Angeles Master Chorale show. Who knows what the theme was – there seemed to be hundreds of them. The show was billed as “Chorus + Organ” and many of the pieces did involve at least some cursory organ accompaniment from Christopher Bull. But just as much of the music on the bill didn't. There was also a good bit of new and very recent music, and director Grant Gershon bandied about some banalities about “darkness and light.” You can take your pick, but the program showed off what I love best about the chorale, superb musicianship and a serious interest in contemporary compositions. To start, though, was some not-so-contemporary stuff from Arvo Pärt, Brahms, and a pair of motets from Anton Bruckner. Yes, I never though I’d see the name Bruckner so close to the word “motets” either but there they were in all their romantic German glory and they were likely the highlight of the whole evening. Offset against these works were two world premieres – Andrea Clearfield’s Dream Variations and Steven Sametz' Music’s Music. The former was a movie-music sounding setting of Langston Hughes poems commissioned with the Debussy Trio in mind that was rather forgettable. The Sametz piece, was a commission from retiring LAMC friend and administrator Kathie Freeman taking a text from a poem written by her daughter at the composer's suggestion. It was very pretty with a substantial solo part for mezzo Erica Brookhyser and clearly meant a lot to everyone in the organization. Probably the musical stand-out among the newer works, however, was Nico Muhly’s Expecting the Main things from You, a setting of poems by Walt Whitman. While Muhly’s piece was the most substantial, it was also the most recognizably derivative from recent forebearers like John Adams and Steve Reich. But if you’re going to borrow, borrow from the best I always say. Above it all, though, was our wonderful local chorale. Subscriptions have gone on sale for the LAMC 09/10 season featuring choruses from The Death of Klinghoffer, Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, a new work form Meredith Monk, Pärt, Americana, and more recent work than you can shake a stick at.

Christian Zacharias with the L.A. Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2009

Prior to this show, I caught Sunday’s matinee performance from the L.A. Philharmonic conducted by the piano soloists and friend of the L.A. Phil, Christian Zacharias. Shows under his guidance are usually warm and engaging, and this was no exception, although things fared much better when he was playing than just conducting. There were rather lukewarm performances of Brahm’s Serenade No. 2, and Haydn’s sinfonia concertante in the first half of the program. But the real prize was Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor. Zacharias switched from the mechanical to the exuberant with this work, giving a gorgeous, unfussy performance. Not a program for the record books perhaps, but no slouch either.

Meanwhile, UCLA Live offered up a performance from the touring Munich Symphony Orchestra on Saturday under the direction of piano soloist Philippe Entremont. More German romantics were in the offing starting with Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and the first Beethoven Piano Concerto. Both were accurate and engaged, but often overly plodding and deliberate, I felt. Entremont played with a sharp clarity, but it seemed a little on the careful and predictable side. There’s pretty and then there’s slow if you know what I mean. Things picked up after the break with Webern’s Fünf Sätze, and Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony. The zip was back at this point with taut, energetic attacks.

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