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Review: L.A. Master Chorale celebrates with 'Organ Extravaganza'

Flush with a $1-million donation, the Los Angeles Master Chorale opens its season at Disney Hall with the richly effusive 'Organ Extravaganza.'

October 22, 2012|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • Organist Paul Meier, right, performs Arvo Part's "The Beatitudes" with the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
Organist Paul Meier, right, performs Arvo Part's "The Beatitudes"… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)

The Los Angeles Master Chorale whooped it up Sunday night. Wouldn't you if someone just gave you a cool million dollars, as have board chairman David Gindler and his wife, Kiki? Wouldn't you want to shout out what far too few arts organizations can boast these financially dark days? In her introduction to the new season in the program booklet, Master Chorale President and Chief Executive Terry Knowles writes that the chorus stands "on the brink of a very bright future."

And wouldn't you also feel the urge to let off a little choral steam, having just sung your soul out to produce a spiritually indispensable new recording of music by Henryk Górecki, the wrenching yet sonically irradiating Polish composer?

The celebration was the Chorale's gala season opener, titled "Organ Extravaganza," at Walt Disney Concert Hall. If much of the music was more showy than significant, blame, to some extent, the British. It was their extravagant choral tradition that the program revolved around. The Disney organ — played alternatively by Paul Meier and Kimo Smith — made a great noise. The program represented Grant Gershon's continued efforts to serve many tastes, traditional and venturesome, as he began his 12th season as music director.

For all the happy hoopla, the evening's two outliers impressed the most. At least that is how the audience voted with its applause. These were the quiet pieces, the ones that didn't praise God with joyful exuberance but with concentrated ardor.

The first was Arvo Pärt's "The Beatitudes," written in 1990 and the cult Estonian composer's first work in English. The text lists those counted in Matthew as blessed. The music rises slowly in pitch and volume, the organ offering a deep foundation. The chorus' concluding loud "Amen" is suddenly cut off, as if stunned by revelation, with the organ left to trace the final chord progression.

The other outlier was Kurt Weill's "Kiddush," which provided the only Hebrew text on a program otherwise in English or liturgical Latin. Weill wrote this brief setting of the Jewish prayer for his father, a cantor, in 1946. The German composer had immigrated to the U.S. and had shifted from avant-garde populist German opera to Broadway. A very rare Weill, the "Kiddush" — for tenor, chorus and organ — adds blue notes here and there and bittersweet harmonies to a seductive chant.

The tenor Daniel Chaney was operatic; I'd have preferred one more cantorial. But the piece is a treasure. It's hard to find on disc but easy to locate on YouTube.

And then there were the Brits — along with a young American besotted by early British choral music. Gershon did a good job of keeping the music contemporary (even if it rarely sounded such) and avoiding the commonplace.

He also referenced the royal wedding of William and Kate, which Gershon had at least the good sense not to watch (he told the audience he had a gig). The wedding repertory included the a cappella "Ubi Caritas" by Paul Mealor, a 36-year-old Welsh composer who pleasingly updates chant with modern harmonies. Hubert Parry's enthusiastically garish classic "I Was Glad," also sung for the prince and new princess, followed, led by the chorus' associate conductor, Lesley Leighton.

Two composers in their early 30s, one British and one American, were another part of the evening's festivities. From London came Tarik O'Regan's "Dorchester Canticles," which added tenor ( Todd Strange), harp (Jo Ann Turovsky) and percussion (Nick Terry). It was meant as a complement to Leonard Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms" but proved a pale one.

The two pieces by Nico Muhly were more interesting. The Master Chorale has recorded both Muhly's "Bright Mass With Canons" and "A Good Understanding," but this was the West Coast premiere of the latter. This meant a Disney triptych for the composer, who had a new piece included in the L.A. Dance Project program a month ago and who was also featured on the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Green Umbrella program earlier in the week.

Both Muhly works are from 2005, when the composer was still in his early 20s. The Mass has the quality of a Steve Reich mix of old English choral music — clever, bright, show-offy. "A Good Understanding" is fanciful in its details and full of beans, using both adult voices and the Los Angeles Children's Chorus, percussion and organ. Muhly, like O'Regan, sets Psalm texts, but his exuberance is not, like O'Regan's, predictable.

The children were given another Psalm, this time a setting by a senior British composer. The kids were excellent, but it seemed rather mean to require them to memorize David Willcocks' forgettable Psalm 150.

The concert ended with Judith Weir's "Ascending Into Heaven." After a long wait, bland music finally ascended and, in the last bars, became heavenly. The Master Chorale, however, sounded all evening like, well, a million dollars.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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