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Music Review

At Salamunovich's Farewell, It's a Night of Ecstatic Love

April 23, 2001|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

The words "end of an era" were not among those spoken at Paul Salamunovich's farewell concert as music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale Friday night. Nor were they used in the program booklet's tributes. Perhaps someone feared that such a phrase might seem inflated for a conductor who had led the chorus for a decade, a respectable period, though hardly an era.

But everyone in the sold-out Dorothy Chandler Pavilion knew otherwise. The knowledge that Salamunovich represents everything the Master Chorale is today could be heard in cheering as loud as can be imagined at a classical music concert. An enormous outpouring it was, from both sides of the stage--singers and members of the Sinfonia Orchestra as demonstrative as the audience.

Salamunovich was there at the beginning. In 1946, he joined the Los Angeles Concert Youth Chorus as a singer, and followed it three years later when the chorus was transformed into the Roger Wagner Chorale. In 1964, when Wagner further transformed his chorus into the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Salamunovich became the assistant conductor. Thus, for 55 of his 73 years, he has been associated with this chorus in all its manifestations. Its lambent, blended sound today is the Salamunovich sound.

For his farewell, Salamunovich had a free hand, and the crowd surely would have embraced any programming indulgence. His season programming was always highly varied. Subscribers heard the great choral masterpieces, rare early music and accessible new pieces, along with evenings devoted to popular holiday music and what used to be called "light classics." There has often been an old-fashioned tinge to the Salamunovich tenure, and one that found a grateful audience.

But, in what was titled "The Maestro's Favorites," he said goodbye with a remarkably unhackneyed group of four important pieces for chorus and large orchestra, even ending with two rarities--Gustav Holst's "Hymn to Jesus" and Carl Nielsen's thrilling, ravishing "Hymnis Amoris."

First came Verdi's highly theatrical setting of the "Stabat Mater," which allowed the Chorale to establish its credentials for power singing. Verdi depicts the weeping Mary at the cross with vivid human emotions as she overcomes a mother's grief to embrace a larger sense of transcendence. This was for Verdi--a lifelong fighter for Italian unification--as much a political statement as a religious one. He centers it on a clear, treble timbre, which is exactly the center Salamunovich has given his chorus, and the singing rang out with a fervor so great as to practically take on a life of its own. The orchestra worked nearly as hard to underscore that enthusiasm.

The heart of the program was Morton Lauridsen's beaming "Lux Aeterna," which followed. The concert also marked the end of Lauridsen's six years as composer-in-residence, during which time he wrote music that magnified the Chorale's special resonance. "Lux Aeterna" is his largest and most important work for the Chorale, and the most beloved.

It is hard to identify exactly what it is about this calm, radiant music that has such an immediate effect on an audience. The blend of voices and the calm surety of the consonances are mesmerizing, to be sure. But something more profound comes into play, and I think it is the sense of well-being that this marvelous score exudes. Though a requiem for the composer's mother, it is music as much about life as it is the spirit. Gentle harmonies, in voices and instruments, seem to hover in the air of the concert hall, yet nonetheless make us feel grounded in the earth.

Holst's "Hymn to Jesus," which opens with a chant melody played on trombone and eventually turns into an excited dance of exaltation, is the evocation of a genuine heavenly body from the composer most famous for his musical representations of planets.

In "Hymnis Amoris," Nielsen set a hymn to love in a Latin text for chorus, large orchestra and solo soprano and tenor. The soloists, Lesley Leighton and Sal Malaki, were not ideal. But the climaxes of this ecstatic score are magnificent, and nothing could hold back the large chorus, enhanced by additional women from the St. Charles Borromeo Choir, the North Hollywood church where Salamunovich has been director of music since 1949.

Ecstatic love proved a brilliant symbol for the end of an era, and maybe even an inspirational transition to a new one. Next season, under 40-year-old Grant Gershon, the Master Chorale will modernize. Its generational shift and new direction promise to make it the most imaginative of any chorus in America. Times change and the sound of the Chorale will inevitably change too. A new Master Chorale may even come to seem more like an offspring of the one with which Salamunovich was so closely associated. Fortunately, as was demonstrated here, the choral gene pool couldn't be better.

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