LA Master Chorale revitalizes the Renaissance sound

Ghent Altarpiece, c.1427, Hubert van Eyck
Ghent Altarpiece, c.1427, Hubert van Eyck

The Renaissance age saw an explosion of new harmonic sounds, as well as new compositional forms. The LA Master Chorale brought this music to life on Sunday, November 16, with their program Renaissance: Reawakened. While the compositions may be from the 15th and 16th centuries, the singers made the music sound as if it was written for them yesterday. Renaissance vocal music dwells mainly in on a cappella (unaccompanied) textures, which can be a dangerous path to tread, as any single musician can pull the delicate texture and disrupt the sonority. For the LA Master Chorale, an entire a cappella program provided no issues for their unmatched skill. Showing a clean, blended sound and shimmering color, the ensemble brought the inner textures to life in each piece.

Grant Gershon, Artistic Director, LA Master Chorale. Photo: Lawrence K. Ho

The singers created a perfect balance, not by holding their voices back, but by singing into their natural abilities. For each work, the singers reassembled themselves in a new formation, sometimes lining up in SATB format, and at other times moving to separate quartets depending on the needs of the song. Much credit must be given to artistic director Grant Gershon for his ability to assemble such voices together on one stage. Kudos must also go to each of the singers themselves, as so many were featured in solos, and each did an admirable job. Many groups may strive to create the Renaissance sound, but the LA Master Chorale should be the gold standard based on their recent performance.

The work which opened the program, Thomas Tallis’ If Ye Love Me, was a particular standout on the concert. Perhaps it’s because it is often performed, but rarely given the love and care it so richly deserves. In the Master Chorale’s hands, each entrance was defined and balanced, while the glorious harmonies and modal shifts bounced like sunlight off the walls of Disney Hall.

The Western Wind Mass by John Taverner was broken into separate sections interspersed throughout the concert. Written as an ordinary mass, each of the sections (Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei) had a different feel when compared to the works that surrounded them by other composers. Gershon was kind enough to sing the cantus firmus, the tune on which the mass is based, to help listeners follow the line through the various voices. The warm, solid support from the bass voices were a stand out in the work, as they gave vertical balance to a work that requires long horizontal lines.

The Gaudent in coelis by Thomas Luis de Victoria was marked with buoyant movement and elegant dissonance, while Josquin des Prez’s Tu solus qui facis mirabilia sparkled with balance and poise. These works show the inventiveness of the composers who were developing the sounds of polyphony for the first time.

After the intermission, associate conductor (and, as announced from the stage, UCLA’s new Director of Choral Activities) Lesley Leighton came to the podium to conduct Ave nobilissima creatura, another work by Josquin des Prez. Leighton’s conducting technique yielded a cooler, more formal sound from the chorale, and it was a pleasure to see Gershon become part of the singing ensemble.

The Vere Languores by Tomas Luis de Victoria rewarded the listeners with a transporting sound. The suspension of long-developing minor harmonies to settle into a major cadence gave the most satisfying release. Many contented sighs in the audience were breathed out with the music, the only fitting harmony the audience could offer.

William Byrd’s Laudibus in sanctis was a brilliant study in text painting. The full throated sound and crisp consonants brought a joie de vivre to the closing of the concert. Gershon rewarded the audience’s spirited applause with a stunning rendition of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s Alma Redemptoris Mater. The work brought even more patrons to their feet in applause at its finish.

There are only two mistakes that one can make with the LA Master Chorale. The first is to think their sound and style can be confined to one genre. The second is not attending their concerts.



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