Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Strength in Numbers

August 08, 2009

The National Youth Choir of Great Britain with composer Eric Whitacre
Photo: mine 2009

In this home stretch of the summer I really start to pine for the incredible acoustics of the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Sadly the two world class resident companies of our amazing local stage, the L.A. Philharmonic and the L.A. Master Chorale, are turned out of doors and stuck in much lesser venues. Meanwhile, the WDCH is handed over to a variety of lease and other events from a number of organizations that more often than not specialize in easy access and user-friendly musical fare. But this Friday provided an opportunity for an event that actually piqued my interest enough to check out what happens in our winter home during the summer months. The show was the final performance of a multi-week American tour from the National Youth Choir of Great Britain. The decades old organization has developed a reputation for excellence in training generations of singers under the guidance of musical director, Mike Brewer. It’s an ensemble with a number of well regarded recordings to its name that honors the great British tradition of choral music performance.

And the group as it appeared this week was excellent. Powerful, controlled and at times subtle, it’s a wonder that they’ve found so many great singers at such a young age. I can think of more than a few adult choirs of more pedigree that would be put to shame by the likes of these young people. The fantastic excerpts from the Vaughn Williams Mass in G minor were very stirring and certainly left me wanting more. Plus you got to appreciate all the rewards of a youth music program without having to swallow a bunch of PR about western music washing all of the youth clean of their challenging socioeconomic backgrounds as tends to be the preference in these matters in Los Angeles these days. Friday was about very young talented people singing and developing as artists without the burden of a whole lot of baggage. What a change of pace.

Accompanying the choir on its journey Friday was a very special guest, the composer and conductor Eric Whitacre. The handsome Californian led the ensemble in a number of his own compositions during the majority of the evening’s show. This comes following an ongoing collaboration between the composer and the group over the last two years that has led to a number of new commissions and ample opportunity for Whitacre to interact with this great ensemble. Whitacre is making a name for himself in choral music and has received significant praise recordings of his recent works including Cloudburst from Hyperion. He’s got an ear for drama and knows his way around a chorus. His music features friendly and often beautiful harmonics though it can seem a little too straight-forward at times. He’s got good taste in dead poets and sets works from authors such as Yeats, Ogden Nash, and Octavio Paz all of which featured prominently in the evening between rather chatty and superfluous introductions from the stage of each number in the program. (A little self-deprecation goes a long way, a lot doesn't.) And while pieces like The Stolen Child and Cloudburst can expertly pull at heart strings, there are still some moments burdened by a fascination with adolescent superhero fantasies similar to those in the most recent outing of Whitacre’s musical Paradise Lost seen at the Boston Court Theater in 2007. On Friday, we had a rather fussy piece about Leonardo da Vinci and his dreams of flying that was a bit much in the context of the other material on the program. But while he may not be Arvo Pärt, Whitacre is no slouch and the excitement these very talented young people showed in working with a living breathing composer who is clearly just as excited as they were was an evening well worth seeing.

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