Heaven in SoCal: Modern choral with Pasadena Master Chorale

It’s a bold presenter that names their concert “The Sound of Heaven”, with a program that is both logical and deeply linked to emotion:  three masters of modern choral music, in what artistic director Jeffrey Bernstein calls an “antidote to the frenetic world we find ourselves living in.”  That’s quite a goal to reach for.  But while even Bernstein admits that many of the selections by Arvo Pärt, Henryk Górecki and Sir John Tavener lean toward the slow and deliberate, the combined effect was an afternoon of meditative sound that lifts the spirits.

headerThe concert started with Tavener’s Lord’s Prayer, a quiet, contemplative setting sung with velvety smooth sound and good precision.  Pärt’s The Beatitudes adds organ to the choir, with modest chords played by Edward Murray.  While harmonies wandered just a bit in a couple of spots, the core sound was sublime, a steady flight of rich song.  The choir’s deliberately syllabic delivery allows overlapping harmonic lines to weave and interchange with clarity, with the organ in a low drone through most of the piece, until a florid keyboard solo at the end allowed Murray to show off his considerable chops.

Two more of the Estonian composer’s pieces contrasted against each other nicely, as Pärt’s Peace Upon You, Jerusalem  made the most of an ebullient female sound and staccato motifs alternated with long legato line.  At once warm and sparkling, the high sopranos made their mark with some hypnotic overtones.  This was followed by De Profundis, which begins with gravelly bass lines, met by a liquid tenor sound that is unusually unified.  The alternating rally of range and timbre expresses the juxtaposition of heaven and earth, God and man, power and piteousness.

From the start, Tavener’s Village Wedding sounds borne of centuries of English musical tradition, but soon evolves into more diverse textures, even showing the influence of Judaic chant.  Tenor soloist Darren Pollock‘s flexible, darker sound (leaning baritone) navigates the harmonic minor with style, moving seamlessly into a parallel duet with alto Jessica Rauch‘s vibrant tone, leaving me impressed with him, and sorry we didn’t get to hear more of her.   Soprano Linella Raff‘s voice is clear and expressive, with a pleasant, bright sound, and baritone Chris Tickner delivered his solo with warmth, careful diction and nice sound.  The piece wrapped up with a choral finale that was soft, controlled and simply gorgeous.

Bernstein described Górecki’s Szeroka Woda (Broad Waters) as a set of five folk song settings which uses tradition to connect with the spirituality in Polish culture, and there is indeed a sort of elemental energy to the set that is very affecting.  Sung all a cappella, the women were angelic and lovely in the harmonies of the first song (“Our River Narew”), and evoked the melody as a far-away wail in the second (“When in Powisle”), which was somehow reminiscent of Irish ballads and grounded by strong rhythms from the men.  The third (“Oh, Johnny, Johnny”) and fourth (“She picked wild roses”) seemed somehow quite similar, and the cycle wrapped up with the titular “Broad Waters”, a brighter, more hopeful hymn that created a powerful finish in the grand manner of Russian choral music — rousing and irresistible.

Tavener’s Song for Athene is a love song, melding Shakespeare’s words with moments from an Eastern Orthodox funeral service. The result is a standout work that draws kudos for the second basses, who drone at the bottom of the stack in a seemingly endless line.  (Nice staggering, boys!) In a program so introverted, the choral blast at the end was a welcome and glorious release.

Finally, the concert finished with Górecki’s Totus Tuus, the piece that drew me to the program and did not disappoint.  Written in 1987, this unforgettable work encapsulates a period of overwhelming transition and rebirth in the Polish composer’s homeland. The piece’s wild shifts of sentiment and texture are part of a jubilant song of a world rising above turmoil and challenge and exploring the whole range of human triumph, even the sadness that must be part of every thoughtful victory.

Jeffrey Bernstein

What was amazing to watch throughout the concert was the way the chorale sang their hearts out, even in the more reserved selections.  The singers were completely engaged focused on Bernstein’s leadership. This is a community-based ensemble, but this almost symbiotic partnership between conductor and musicians is the key to their success, resulting in the same level of intention and commitment to excellence ostensibly found in a group of professionals, and it shows in PMC’s sound — this is a very good choir.  Bernstein’s passionate interpretation is present in his conducting, but he doesn’t get bogged down in the details. Clearly the real work has already taken place in rehearsal, and we get the sense that he wants his choir to enjoy the performing experience.  It’s easy to see where the choir’s intense loyalty is rooted.

With out-of-the-box programming and delightfully touchy-feely presentation (“breaking down the fourth wall in every way possible”), it’s understandable that they’ve built such a devoted following in just six seasons.  I look forward to seeing and hearing them again.

Pasadena Master Chorale has one concert left this season, with Brahms’ German Requiem on June 13 & 14.  But their Spring Soirée on May 3rd sounds like a great time!  Visit their website

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