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SOUNDS ABOUT TOWN : Song of Ages : The Master Chorale's stirring performance of Honegger's 'King David' is fitting in these times of tight arts budgets.

March 28, 1991|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Cultural organizations, feeling the strain of fiscal survival but determined to prevail, can be likened to David fighting Goliath. The Goliath in question: the towering foe of tight budgets and uneven public faith.

David, fittingly, was the centerpiece last weekend of the Ventura County Master Chorale's current concert season. Kicking off the second half of its ninth season, the Master Chorale took on Arthur Honegger's formidable oratorio "King David," chronicling the life of the Jewish slingshot virtuoso who would be, and was, king.

Befitting the Old Testament tenor of the work, the Master Chorale departed from traditional concert venues and instead performed in two area synagogues--Ventura's Temple Beth Torah and the Temple Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks.

At Saturday night's performance at Temple Beth Torah, the nearly 70-person ensemble was shoehorned into a relatively small stage area, with the modest orchestra laid out on the floor in front. Intimacy has its upside and downside. In the temple, what was lacking in space was gained in acoustic and theatrical immediacy.

There is still nothing in music quite as stirring as a chorale lifting up its collective voice in song. The Master Chorale, under founding director Burns Taft, is a polished unit, capable of ensemble sound and dynamic turns. On Saturday, the chorale shifted from a hushed purr to rousing climaxes on the oratorio's "Alleluia" sections at the end of Parts 2 and 3.

In the lead roles were Ventura soprano Katherine O'Hara, contralto Janet Smith, tenor Bruce Johnson and, in a spooky cameo appearance as the Witch of Endor, Barbara Wouters.

Threaded through the story were bits of narration by Ventura-based composer John Biggs. In one of the highlights of last year's Master Chorale season, the group performed Biggs' "Mass for a New Age" both in Ventura and at Santa Barbara's Music Academy of the West. Here, Biggs attended to narrative duties well, speaking lucidly at times, suddenly turning ominous and invoking biblical grandiosity.

Honegger's musical material, too, changes character as it flows. Written in 1921 and premiered in its concert version in 1922, "King David" set the Swiss-born French composer's career in motion.

Although not an expressly modern piece, the 20th-Century origins are felt in the collage of musical languages in use. Along with more traditional Handel-esque choral writing are hints of folk song, odd harmonic twists and the syncopated militaristic lope of "March of the Philistines"--with a smirking quality almost reminiscent of German composer Kurt Weill.

Still, "King David" is no mere intellectual exercise in Modernist patchwork quilting. It's a coherent opus, which, when performed with the sort of gusto mustered by the Master Chorale, winds up a passionate and inspiring experience.

Now creeping up on its 10th anniversary, the Master Chorale will forge ahead with its final concerts of the season on May 18 and 19. The setting will be Oxnard's First Presbyterian Church, and the repertoire will turn to music of Eastern Europe and Africa.

MOZART PATROL: The Ventura Symphony will continue its trek into the last and best chapter of Mozart's symphonic career in this bicentennial commemoration of his death. Last month, the symphony performed "A Mozart Celebration" with three Mozart pieces on the program, including his Symphony No. 39 in E-Flat. With the April 6 and 7 concerts, the Ventura Symphony will resume the tribute with Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, along with Haydn's Concerto in D for Cello and Bruckner's Symphony No. 7 in E.

As anyone versed in Mozart mythology knows by now, adversity begat--or at least had no apparent diminishing effect on--greatness in the composer's creative life. He wrote the 40th in 1788 during a particularly bleak time. Money--the lack of it and Mozart's frivolous way with it--was the root of the evil in his house. His wife was ill and he wrote to his friends for money. "God," he wrote, "I am in a situation I would not wish on my worst enemy."

Where there is a stark contrast between the bright emotional timbre and the composer's dire straits in other Mozart works, the G-minor symphony takes its dourness straight. It is a melancholy work, but is held together by a sturdy sense of formal structure that keeps it from succumbing to self-pity.

In sharp contrast to Mozart's keen balance of form and emotional expression, Anton Bruckner's symphonic output fully embraced the cause of Romanticism. To hear the nearly 70-minute sprawl of his Symphony No. 7, for instance, is to bathe in the gushing waters of 19th-Century Romantic music.

Bruckner, sandwiched in history between Beethoven and Mahler, brought brooding seriousness to the business of composing the symphony, viewing it as an expressive vehicle of epic proportions. He wrote the 7th Symphony in 1885 and filled it with the robust gestures, fleeting tenderness and the exaggerated dynamic contrasts we expect of Bruckner.

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