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MUSIC REVIEW

A chorus worthy of approval at Disney

November 18, 2003|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

More than three weeks after its opening, the celebrations at Walt Disney Concert Hall have not ceased. Sunday night was the Los Angeles Master Chorale's turn. As a resident company of the Music Center family, the chorus is the only other company besides the Los Angeles Philharmonic to be able to call the new hall home. To its great good fortune, the Master Chorale gets the use of a fabulous audience magnet without having had to go through nearly as much fund-raising pain and suffering as the Philharmonic.

Indeed, the Master Chorale could have done any dopey old thing Sunday and still sold out Disney and had a happy party -- it was also the ensemble's 40th anniversary. But to its credit, the chorus has looked at Disney as opportunity, not free ride. Two years ago, it brought on board an invigorating, inventive and enormously gifted young conductor as its music director, and under Grant Gershon there has been a spirit of renewal.

The program Sunday was typical of the way Gershon has worked to maintain the Master Chorale's traditions (and hang on to its traditional audience) while bringing it up to date. The evening started with a 1,000-year-old plainchant, wonderfully sung as the chorus stood in the aisles, surrounding the audience with luminous sound, and concluded with a stirring performance of John Adams' "Harmonium" -- a beginning and ending that easily overcame some problems in between.

Bach's motet "Sing to the Lord a New Song" was strongly performed a cappella by the full chorus. A strange piece in which a divided chorus alternates gloomy we're-all-going-to-die phrases with upbeat it's-fabulous-to-be-alive ones, it is full of theatrical effects. But the large chorus, kept on a tight leash by Gershon, had a steely quality, as if aware that there is nowhere to hide in the transparent Disney acoustic.

Bobby McFerrin, the remarkable jazz vocalist and sometime classical conductor, was commissioned to write a new work for the concert. He delivered two short pieces co-composed by Roger Treece, who crosses over among jazz, pop, classical and Broadway and has a side career writing music for commercials. Trite inspirational texts were supplied by Don Rosler. The two new scores are part of a recording project.

"Brief Eternity," in which the chorus was accompanied by saccharine flutes and harp, is smooth Starbucks jazz and Hallmark sentiment. The up-tempo "Messages" included soprano saxophonist Justo Almario and Peruvian percussionist Alex Acuna, along with pairs of cellists, bassists and percussionists from the Master Chorale Orchestra. It was as though Kenny G wished to meet "Carmina Burana," but even that low ambition couldn't be accomplished. Disney Hall has already inspired impressive and innovative new music from Adams, Tan Dun and even John Williams. McFerrin is not an insignificant musician, and it is sad to see him sell out.

But there may be compensations ahead. Already, Steve Reich is writing a work for Gershon and the Master Chorale, although the premiere has been moved from this spring to next season to give the busy composer more time. And on Sunday, the performance of Adams' "Harmonium" proved how brilliant this chorus can sound when given new music of substance.

Written in 1981 for the San Francisco Symphony, "Harmonium" was Adams' first big work for chorus and orchestra and the first major statement in the composer's career. Setting poems by John Donne and Emily Dickinson about love, life, loss and their inevitable interconnections, it begins with the depths of Donne's "Negative Love," to intense pulsating music. It then slows to an eerie, time-bending standstill for Dickinson's "Because I Could Not Stop for Death" and ends in an orgasmic Minimalist fever with Dickinson's "Wild Nights."

With a large orchestra onstage and the chorus moved up to the benches, the sound was riveting. Occasionally, the climaxes were pushed too hard, but they were still extraordinarily clear and viscerally powerful, while the quiet passages were pure magic. Gershon maintained a steady line from the chorus' throbbing iterations of the word "no" to its sensuously lapping repetitions of the line "rowing to Eden" at the end, creating a tranquil feeling of affirmation. Any chorus that can capture that moment deserves Disney.

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