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Sampling the centuries

Brahms and Part meet the modern age in a Los Angeles Master Chorale

February 24, 2009|Richard S. Ginell

Los Angeles Master Chorale music director Grant Gershon seems to be what the late, 19th century-born Times music critic Albert Goldberg would have called "the New Man" -- someone at home with up-to-the-minute devices such as the iPod. One hint is that Gershon proudly lists the diverse contents of his own iPod under his bio in the chorale's printed program.

And although he stopped short of saying so, Gershon led an iPod kind of Master Chorale program Sunday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall -- a grab bag of small- and medium-sized pieces from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries with a few stream-of-consciousness links.

Arvo Part's modern/medieval mini-masterpiece "De Profundis" got the evening rolling, with bright, clear male singing and the deeply satisfying vibrations of the pipe organ making up for the fact that Disney Hall's reverberation time falls well short of a cathedral's.

There followed two highly concentrated Bruckner choral motets, "Locus iste" and "Os justi," which Gershon aptly described as "dwarf stars" in that they contain the matter that exploded into symphonies. Brahms' tiny, consoling "Lass dich nur nichts nicht dauren" is crowned by one of the greatest organ-pedal-anchored "Amens" in the literature -- and it was meltingly sung by the Master Chorale.

Then we were gently pushed into the 21st century with a pair of world premieres from Andrea Clearfield and Steven Sametz, separated by an intermission and another wisp of choral Brahms ("Ave Maria").

Clearfield's "Dream Variations" is a setting of three Langston Hughes poems for chorus. Marcia Dickstein's rippling harp suggested a river in one poem and set up a Latin rhythm in another. Yet the most striking elements were provided by the fluid, glistening interplay of the commissioning Debussy Trio (harp, viola, flute) and organist Christoph Bull.

Sametz's "Music's Music" celebrates the healing power of music in a lush, lovely, at times touching score that seems to veer closer and closer to the ethereal pastoral spirit of Vaughan Williams' similarly inclined "Serenade to Music" as it unfolds. Mezzo-soprano Erica Brookhyser was the vocal soloist, and the only instrumental backing consisted of clarinet and harp.

The playlist concluded with the West Coast premiere of Nico Muhly's "Expecting the Main Things From You," in which selections from Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" are first broken into choral fragments, then backed by a hazy series of Minimalist textures derived first from Steve Reich, then Philip Glass, then Reich again. But midway through the third section, the piece was running low on creative juice, as if the program's internal iPod needed re-syncing.

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