The Los Angeles Master Chorale seems to be an organization in trouble. Roger Wagner, its founder and music director, is teetering on the brink of a retirement that may--or then again may not--be voluntary. Conductors under consideration to succeed Wagner are being given sporadic one-night stands that serve essentially as public auditions.
Meanwhile, after 20 seasons, the old formulas don't seem to be working all that well, and the audience is shrinking. The performance of "The Creation" Saturday night served as a case in point.
Haydn's exalted oratorio is a daunting challenge for any organization. Ideally, it requires a masterful conductor, three operatic virtuosos adept at classic bravura as well as Mozartean finesse, a splendid chorus and a stylish orchestra.
The forces at the Music Center provided a splendid chorus.
Robert Page, an undoubted choral magician from Cleveland, held things together briskly and reasonably neatly. In broad, generalized terms, he always respected Haydn's fundamental rhetoric, and he usually established the appropriate mood. But he was unable to establish much interpretive force or illustrative nuance.
His leadership, though eminently tasteful, resulted in bland, cautious, even tentative, music-making in a work that spans ethereal lyricism, quirky pictorial effects and grandiose drama. The problems may relate, in part at least, to inadequate rehearsal. Nevertheless, one left a Master Chorale program once again with the nagging suspicion that a fine chorus master is not necessarily a compelling conductor for a challenge of such magnitude.
The soloists were promising young talents in need of stronger direction.
Kaaren Erickson--who makes her debut at the Metropolitan Opera next season as Susanna in "Le Nozze di Figaro"--sang with sweetness, purity and fluency. Her efforts were sometimes muted by excessive reticence, however, and sometimes smothered by a too generous orchestral blanket.
Glenn Siebert brought poise and a slender, forthright tenor to the solos of Uriel. Richard Crist sang a few mezza voce phrases with lovely affect and descended honorably to the subterranean grumble that describes the creepy worm in Raphael's arioso, but, for the most part, was content to declaim in a healthy, monochromatic baritone.
The Sinfonia Orchestra, almost always a weak link in Master Chorale performances, played as if it were sight-reading the score, and not always accurately at that.
The Chorale thundered and whispered, soared and roared, with its usual mellifluous bravado. Unfortunately, it cannot be the center of attention in a work as multifaceted as "The Creation"--a work that might be better left to better-endowed and better-equipped institutions such as the Philharmonic.
The audience was small at the beginning of the evening and considerably smaller after intermission.