Grant Gershon, shown here conducting the Los Angeles Master Chorale in… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
A Vaughan Williams sandwich between two layers of Poulenc is what Grant Gershon and the Los Angeles Master Chorale dished up Sunday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall — not exactly everyday fare.
This is particularly true with Vaughan Williams, whose music strangely doesn’t often receive live hearings outside Britain; if not for recordings, we would know hardly any of it in America. Besides being the greatest English symphonist — over a lot of 20th century competition — Vaughan Williams also made a big contribution to the choral repertory, of which Gershon presented two medium-sized samples.
Vaughan Williams liked to write for double ensembles, whether choral or orchestral — and so for the Mass in G minor, the Master Chorale split into two groups, from which one could make out some antiphonal effects from a seat in Orchestra Level 3. While the Mass draws inspiration from Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, the piece comes closest to the sound world of VW’s contemporaneous Symphony No. 3 with its haunting, pastoral modal scales. Along with a clear, well-balanced vocal quartet, the split choirs sang joyously and buoyantly.
In Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs, Gershon used the version with organ accompaniment, which, alas, doesn’t make nearly as big an impact in the first four songs as the orchestral version, with only a sparse texture backing the straight-forward baritone soloist Abdiel Gonzales. In the fifth song, however, the organ (played by Paul Meier) and chorus bloomed with grandeur.
Poulenc’s brief, solemn Salve Regina opened the concert, and his “Figure Humaine” became the pièce de résistance at the close. Written as an act of resistance during World War II, the cantata closes with a remarkable piece of material in which a laundry list of images builds in fervor and emotion until it explodes at the end with the word “liberté!” The Master Chorale, again split into a double choir, made the most of that moment.
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