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Music Review : John Currie Debuts With New Regime

November 10, 1986|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music Critic

It wasn't just another performance of the Verdi Requiem Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

It certainly wasn't just another concert by the Los Angeles Master Chorale and its adjunct, the so-called Sinfonia Orchestra.

It wasn't even the Master Chorale and Sinfonia as we have known them lo these many years.

This was the inaugural concert of a new regime. Goodby, Roger Wagner. Hello, John Currie.

It could not be claimed that the debutant maestro from Scotland made his entrance treading lightly. For better or worse, Currie has torn down the houses that Wagner built.

Without waiting for so much as a hello and a get-acquainted concert, much less a get-acquainted season, the new man has remastered the Master Chorale. About two-thirds of the faces seem to be new. He also has reconstituted what used to be essentially a pick-up band.

It is a bit early to judge if the changes are for the better. To some ears--these, for instance--the changes in vocal personnel hardly seemed imperative.

As Confucius--or was it the All-Knowing Mussel?--said, if it isn't broke, don't fix it.

The management has decreed a changing of the guard, however, and Los Angeles has endured much public and private gnashing of choro-political teeth in the process. One can only hope that the gnashing will enhance cultural progress in the long--and short--run.

Currie has said that he wanted to make his initial splash with Elgar's "Dream of Gerontius." Stylistically, that might have been a more congenial choice for him. It certainly would have been a vehicle that invited less dangerous comparisons.

The Verdi Requiem still bears the Giulini imprint here. It is, furthermore, a work that rings in our ears as interpreted by such disparate masters as Serafin, Toscanini, Abbado, Solti, Karajan, Bruno Walter and Guido Cantelli.

In such a lofty--and probably unfair--interpretive context, Currie seems like a very competent Kapellmeister . He beats time clearly. He cues efficiently. He conveys generalized moods deftly. He keeps things moving crisply, and in feverish climaxes such as the "Dies Irae" makes a mighty noise.

He obviously knows what he wants from the chorus, and usually gets it. He probably knows what he wants from the orchestra--a rather small and rough orchestra in this case--but doesn't do much to get it.

He offered a decent, elemental "Requiem" Saturday night. Unfortunately, it tended to be cool and efficient just when one yearned most for eloquence.

The great soaring phrases remained earthbound. The arching line merely zigged up and zigged down. The introspective rhetoric got glossed over in haste. The expansive affects tended to sputter.

The chorus sang with admirable thrust, flexibility and accuracy. It did not sing with maximum expressive impact, or with the massive resonance that had characterized the work of Currie's wondrous Scottish chorus at Hollywood Bowl. Nor did it sing with the balanced bravura that had ennobled the best days of the Master Chorale in its Wagnerian prime. But there is time.

The most crucial virtues of the solo quartet would seem to have been economical.

Richard Leech, the ardent tenor, offered fresh, fluent tone and a brilliant top voice for the climax of the "Ingemisco." He couldn't quite muster the mezza-voce finesse wanted in the "Hostias." Still, he was the best of the modest lot.

Deborah Ford introduced a properly limpid soprano hampered by a distinctly improper technique. Alice Baker encountered both pitch and breath problems as she tried to make a her lyric mezzo-soprano sound dramatic. Richard Cowan provided a nice, slender, lightweight basso where Verdi really required a heavyweight.

The performance was dedicated to the memory of Michael Newton, a Music Center administrator and, according to the program insert, "a true, steadfast and beloved friend of the Master Chorale."

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