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A chorus' master class in surround sound

By arranging the Los Angeles Master Chorale around Disney Hall, Grant Gershon creates rich spatial effects.

October 04, 2005|Richard S. Ginell | Special to The Times

While surround sound seems to have caught on with film fans, classical listeners have been stubbornly resistant -- at least at home, where the idea of hearing the music in front of you, not all around the room, remains the standard.

Likewise, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Frank Gehry's gift to surround-sound buffs, usually sits waiting for someone to take advantage of its spatial layout. Few have.

Grant Gershon, the eager, enterprising music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, is among the exceptions. For the chorale's season opener Sunday night, he put together a spatial-minded program for double and multiple choruses.

Gershon had to do some in-depth digging into the choral repertoire -- and not everything yielded striking results. But he did come up with an attractive, unusual lineup of spoon-size bits and pieces in the first half, with the big payoff after intermission.

For a trio of short works by Giovanni Gabrieli, Pachelbel and Handl -- that's Jacob Handl, not a typo -- the Master Chorale lined some of the aisles and part of the stage, while Gershon had a grand time whirling around cueing everyone. However, the spatial effect from a seat in the upper orchestra was slight, and I imagine that those who were right next to the choristers or listening from on high heard some weird balances.

For Antonio Lotti's heart-rending "Crucifix," more Handl and a shift to the 19th century with Schumann's "An die Sterne" and "Talismane" and Brahms' "Fest- und Gedenkspruche," the a cappella chorale reverted to the stage risers, conveying the consolatory Brahms limpidly.

The piece that struck spatial gold was Thomas Tallis' remarkable "Spem in Alium," which Gershon scheduled in his first Master Chorale concert four years ago. Written for a 40-part chorus, the piece floated radiantly, with the chorale spread all around the hall; the sound, coming from everywhere with terrific depth and clarity, fused to the deep organ underpinning.

Poulenc's a cappella "Figure Humaine" for double chorus, which concluded the evening, may have lacked the Tallis' wow factor. But with Poulenc tossing the music back and forth between choruses, mixing up the meters and gradually tightening the intensity of the splendorous final movement, "Liberte," there was plenty to savor.

Still, if the recording industry wants to jump-start its flagging multichannel formats, how about recording the Master Chorale's Tallis right here in Disney Hall, in 5.1 surround, and marketing it as the ultimate surround demo single?

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