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Putting on Broadway heirs

Widening its range, and maybe its audience, the Master Chorale performs Sondheim and young Turks in line to succeed him.

June 06, 2004|David Mermelstein | Special to The Times

Strange. Brave. Incongruous. Any of these descriptions might apply to the Los Angeles Master Chorale's final concert this season, titled "The New Broadway: Sondheim and Generation Next."

To be performed at Walt Disney Concert Hall next Sunday and June 15, the program will feature songs by three composers who are critically acclaimed but not yet famous: Jason Robert Brown, Ricky Ian Gordon and Adam Guettel.

The combination is certainly odd. The venerable Master Chorale is associated more with Bach, Mozart and Brahms than with newly minted show tunes, so it's hard to imagine how songs by three avatars of musical theater's new wave will be interpreted.

In the event, old prejudices may have to be abandoned. Despite the occasional success of some Broadway musicals -- most recently "Wicked," "Avenue Q" and "Urinetown" -- no younger composer-lyricists have attained anything close to the recognition Stephen Sondheim acquired decades ago, to say nothing of the affection earned by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Rodgers and Hammerstein during Broadway's golden age. And as arts organizations of all stripes face formidable challenges on multiple fronts -- competition from new technologies, graying patrons and consumer belt-tightening among them -- they seek novel ways not just to gain new audiences but to retain their traditional base.

Indeed, Grant Gershon, who has led the Master Chorale since 2001, has spoken often about his desire to expand both his organization's repertory -- generally choral works by mainstream classical composers -- and its ticket sales.

"If there's any world more calcified than Broadway, it's classical music," composer Brown said via e-mail from Italy. "So I'm overjoyed that Grant asked us to be a part of this. Good music deserves to be heard in all contexts by all audiences, and I suspect musical tastes are nowhere near as hidebound and reactionary as the classical-music marketing gurus think."

Gershon says the chorale has performed show music periodically, but he hasn't conducted such a concert until now. "So I thought, let's continue that tradition but with a twist. I don't like to do anything too ordinary."

That's an understatement. Gershon's life in music has been nothing if not varied: He's been a pianist, opera coach and orchestra conductor, and his musical interests stretch from Renaissance polyphony to alternative rock.

In 1998, he left Los Angeles for New York, where he became acquainted with a group of young theater composers just then gaining notice. The group included not just Guettel, Gordon and Brown but also Michael John LaChiusa -- all composers championed by Audra McDonald, the singer and Tony Award-winning actress whose 1998 album, "Way Back to Paradise," gave these songwriters their first broad exposure together.

Gershon and Gordon, in fact, are among those who consider the CD, which has sold nearly 55,000 copies, seminal, because it essentially announced the arrival of a new school of intimate, sophisticated songwriting -- thematically eclectic, unapologetically lyrical and harmonically modernist. It also suggested to some that the Great American Songbook did not conclude with Sondheim.

Sondheim, now 74, remains singular in the American musical theater, the most significant voice to emerge in the wake of the great songwriting teams that had all but disappeared by the mid-1960s. And for that reason, Gershon is including five familiar Sondheim numbers in the concerts.

"I think it's important and interesting to be able to put the music of these younger composers in the broader context of Sondheim's influence," he said. "I don't know how they feel his influence is manifested, but I feel there's a direct connection to the smart, sophisticated musical and verbal language of Sondheim that very clearly connects to this generation."

The conductor, 43, also admits to a more prosaic concern: "I'm enough of a realist to know it's never a great idea to have a concert made up entirely of music nobody's ever heard of."

Brown, Gordon and Guettel all acknowledge their debt to Sondheim, but not without ambivalence. For one thing, the association isn't always positive. "I'm loath to acknowledge it too often," said Brown, 33, "because when a critic writes that I'm 'Sondheim-influenced,' it's usually code for 'cold and cerebral,' which doesn't characterize Steve's work at all and which I certainly hope doesn't characterize mine."

Gordon, 48, calls such comparisons "hollow," noting that "whenever people have to hear music more than once, it seems they have to compare it to Sondheim, just because it's intricately crafted or harmonically complex or contrapuntal."

Guettel, 39, puts even more distance between himself and Sondheim. "I see him as a deeply important, brilliantly talented point on the continuum," he said. "But he's simply an influence. How does he influence me? By giving me the courage to make something new and not be cowed by those who would have it otherwise."

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