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Poignant Brahms Opens Chorus Season

November 01, 1994|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Paul Salamunovich is one of Los Angeles' hidden treasures. He tends to do much of the hiding himself.

He isn't the sort of maestro who indulges in personal promoting, on or off the podium. He isn't flamboyant. He isn't self-conscious. He isn't even picturesque.

He lets the music do the talking. And the talking is always informed, always stylish and almost invariably eloquent.

It certainly was eloquent Sunday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion when he opened the 31st season of the Los Angeles Master Chorale with an elegiac evening of Brahms. Salamunovich began the quiet festivities with the exquisite simplicity of the "Ave Maria," written when the composer was only 25. Then came the lyric pathos of the Alto Rhapsody, and finally, after intermission, the aching grandeur of the "German" Requiem.

In each of these challenges, the conductor steadfastly avoided easy effects. Although he often favored slow tempos, he never flirted with exaggeration, much less distortion. He proved that he knows the difference between sentiment and sentimentality. When dealing with the romanticism of Brahms, a little of that knowledge can go a long way.

Of course, he savored the emotional appeal inherent in word and tone. In the process, however, he always resisted the common temptation to over-stress the rhetoric. Call it poetic restraint. Call it good sense. Call it good taste.

None of the maestro's lofty intentions would count for much, of course, if the instrument at his disposal were unresponsive. No problem here. In its current state, the Master Chorale is a virtuoso ensemble--resonant, flexible, secure, impeccably balanced, equally impressive in shimmering pianissimo and shattering fortissimo. With Salamunovich in charge, everything sounds natural, everything sounds urgent and almost everything sounds easy.

The situation isn't quite so felicitous with the Sinfonia Orchestra. It is a solid ad hoc ensemble, and it enlists some of the city's finest free-lance players. Unfortunately, they cannot play together very often, and rehearsal time is costly. Compounding the problem somewhat, Salamunovich is a choral specialist first and foremost, not an orchestral wizard.

Sometimes, one has to settle for compromises, and generalities. On this occasion, the spirit was willing.

*

Claudine Carlson, the protagonist in the Alto Rhapsody, made up in expressive fervor for what she may have lacked in vocal freshness. In the Requiem, Tamara Crout Matthews brought bell-like purity to the arching phrases of "Traurigkeit," and David Arnold ennobled the wide-ranging baritone solos with calm force and burnished tone. (Contrary to his program biography, this was not Arnold's local debut. He is well remembered for appearances here with the New York City Opera, the Long Beach Symphony and, yes, the Master Chorale.)

The Requiem performance, not incidentally, was dedicated by the singers to the memory of colleagues who have died of AIDS. Most of the chorus members wore red ribbons, as did many players in the orchestra. The communal sadness was palpable.

The evening's one element of controversy involved the introduction of supertitles--translations of the texts, projected two lines at a time on a screen atop the proscenium.

The "helpful" device can be distracting in opera performances, where eyes should be focused on the drama at hand. This is not much of a problem in a concert setting. Still, it can be argued that the words assume abnormal importance when flashed in huge letters above the stage. On Sunday, moreover, it could be lamented that the lines--archaic, non-literal translations--were not even synchronized with the music.

In any case, one concertgoer missed being able to follow the original text in the program in conjunction with the English version (no original texts were offered here). He also regretted being unable to read Richard H. Trame's interesting annotations in the dark.

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