On Sunday afternoon, the Los Robles Master Chorale officially began its 1996 season with an English theme. But as it turned out, "Music of the English Tradition" was stretched a bit thin, covering a gamut of high and low traditions. These ranged from profound religious works--Ralph Vaughan Williams' mass in G minor and contemporary composer John Tavener's fascinating work--to an elegantly arranged folk songfest in the second half.
However diverse the repertoire, the massive vocal forces were in fine form. Eighteen years into it, founding conductor James Stemen has built up an ensemble worth going out of your way to hear. But thanks in part to the chorale's track record and community support, you don't have to go out of the way to hear them--just head directly to the highly visible, freeway-close Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza.
This is the group's second season in the expansive quarters of the Civic Arts Plaza, after spending years concertizing in area churches. The chorale seems to have met the new challenges of filling such a large hall and living up to a level of expected polish. Stemen et al muster a generous, warm collective sound, enhanced in no small measure by the hall's flattering acoustics.
Vaughan Williams' mass, written in 1921 as his first major choral piece, is an epic, yet easy-to-digest opus. His interest in folk themes and palatable melodics, combined with the orthodoxy of Latin texts, make for a brand of spiritual exposition that runs deep and goes down smoothly.
The revelation of this concert was Tavener's "Lament of the Mother of God," a stark and moving work based on text from Russian Orthodox liturgy. Although written in 1988, Tavener's piece had its North American premiere in Thousand Oaks.
Tavener's interest in Russian music is evident in his harmonic and structural ideas. Soprano Ruth Robertson sang the lamenting text, from the perspective of the grieving Madonna at the crucifixion, over a chorale bed that mostly consisted of droning unison tones, giving it an ethereal air. The work modulates gradually, and subtly shifts its emotional tone from mourning to rejoicing.
Sparingly, the chorus part turns slightly warmer and more elaborate as the piece progresses. The group works toward a brief, triumphant chorus, before the soprano's final, resigned statement of the central motif: "Woe is me, my child." It is a powerful and unusual piece of music.
In the concert's second half, the fare turned lighter--from Elgar to folk tune terrain--and seemed somewhat anticlimactic. The Amadeus Boys Choir, led with care by Patricia Hesselbach, gave a sonorous beauty to a Welsh folk song and a piece by Henry Purcell.
Closing the concert, the chorale turned its focus to United Kingdom folk delights, including "Loch Lomond," arranged by Vaughan Williams, and even the stalwart ear candy of "Danny Boy," as arranged by the late great choral director Roger Wagner.
Wagner, who lived in Camarillo before his death a few years ago, played a role in the ensemble's history. He served as a guest conductor in addition to being a general source of inspiration for the choral field.
Los Robles continues its short season on April 28, on the theme of Brahms' German Requiem. The group provides a bold service in helping to keep the choral tradition alive and well in Ventura County.
* CONCERT: The Los Robles Master Chorale will next perform at 4 p.m. April 28 at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza Auditorium. Tickets range from $8 to $25. For tickets or information, call (805) 482-2866. The last concert of the season will be at 8 p.m. June 8.