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Small-scale Bach Is Not Grade B, Says L.a. Chorale

October 09, 1987|CHRIS PASLES | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Master Chorale music director John Currie is bringing only a portion of his 140 singers to start a new series today in Newport Beach with Bach's Mass in B-minor. But he insists that the group won't be beginning its first Orange County concert series with bargain-basement Bach.

"Although the Bach B-minor is one of the great, monumental works," Currie said, "it has a special excitement when not done by massive forces. And that is the ideology, the message, behind these performances."

The Chorale's five-part series at the church will continue Jan. 15, Feb. 12, March 11 and April 29. Performances are being underwritten by the E. Nakamichi Foundation, and programs will be repeated at the Japan America Theatre in Los Angeles on Saturdays following the Newport Beach dates.

Today's program will use just 30 singers.

"These are not chamber performances," Currie said. "They are medium-to-small-scaled performances, but the scale springs from the pieces themselves.

"There are very dramatic things revealed in the (B-minor) text. (But) Bach didn't write any strictly vocal music. The (musical) lines written for the voices are exactly in the same style and character as for the string instruments. . . . And there is very little doubling of the voices by the instruments. In the formula (we use where) one instrument equals one voice, that produces very demanding but very exciting possibilities.

"The ultimate evidence will be the audience's ears and the communication we make. That's what it's all about."

Currie said the same small-sized approach also will suit Haydn's "Missa in tempore belli," in the Feb. 12 concert.

"The late Haydn masses are masterpieces of classical Viennese style, and when they are performed by a smaller ensemble, you can use tempi you would choose for a final movement of a Haydn symphony, which is often one of great wit and speed," Currie said.

The title of the work, "Mass in Time of War," Currie said, comes from the moment in the final "Agnus Dei" in which trumpets and drums "create a very belligerent interruption.

"That happens in (Beethoven's) 'Missa Solemnis,' too. That Viennese tradition of Haydn and Beethoven is a remarkable tradition. People forget that Haydn was there, too, and was, in fact, Beethoven's teacher--indirectly. Their styles have so much in common."

The January and March programs will be a cappella for a group of 16 voices.

"There is a small but very gripping repertory for groups of that size," Currie said. "I know that there is an image that unaccompanied music is not so interesting. But I would hold that if the repertory is well chosen, that size of an ensemble can excite an audience in the same way a small chamber orchestra can. Debussy and Ravel wrote little (a cappella) music, but each work they wrote are absolutely at the peak of that repertory."

Also on the second program are folk songs that Currie has arranged.

"Folk songs in some ways have got a bad name because of 'clever-clever' arrangements for glee-club types of ensembles," Currie said. "But I revel in the beauty of that music and want to show that (folk songs) can be little arts songs in their own right and be very appealing to an audience."

Currie will close the season on April 29 with Bach's "Passion According to St. John."

"The St. John Passion is less well known and more intimate than the St. Matthew, which combines all the resources Bach had at his command," he said.

"We will be doing the St. John with only 19 singers and an orchestra of the same size. But it is an extremely demanding work. There is nothing less dramatic in it compared with the St. Matthew. It has the same intent in conveying a human drama."

Currie said it has taken him a year to start a second series: "The main series of the Chorale traditionally has been the large standard repertory in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (in Los Angeles), an auditorium which seats in excess of 3,000 people. Unfortunately, the Music Center does not have a small, more intimate music auditorium. . . . So our second series will have to be done outside Music Center.

"I'd like to have launched this immediately on arrival (as the new director of the Master Chorale in September, 1986). But it didn't quite work out that way."

Currie said the Orange County venture is a natural extension of the chorale's work in Los Angeles: "The Master Chorale is and should be involved in performances outside the immediate downtown area. Most significant choral groups make significant appearances and tours, and Orange County has become a favorite place for outside groups to go. We gave a concert of Spanish music (in March, 1987) in San Juan Capistrano.

"I welcome good musical performances by any group anywhere. It's a ludicrous idea to suggest that anyone should be confined to a particular backyard. That's a very parochial idea."

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