LA Master Chorale soars through two world premieres with ‘Songs of Ascent’, 3/8/15

Attending a concert of the Los Angeles Master Chorale is about the closest thing to a rock concert experience you’ll find in classical music.  We almost expect to hear conductor Grant Gershon cry, “Hello, Cleveland!” when he first turns to greet us.  Few artistic organizations enjoy such a fervent following, and for good reason:  most aren’t nearly this good.

Sunday night’s crowd drew not only from the usual LAMC groupies, but from two local communities who showed in plentiful numbers to witness and cheer for a little compositional history: with two world premieres on the program, their composers brought in hefty claques from LA’s robust Korean community and from the nearby suburb of La Verne, home of Swan Family Composer in Residence Shawn Kirchner.

The program, entitled “Songs of Ascent” after Kirchner’s new work, was true to its rising theme, starting with Eric Whitacre‘s ebullient Her Sacred Spirit Soars. The “Neo-Renaissance” ode was created in 2002 with lyricist Charles Silvestri, celebrating the Elizabethan with madrigalian twists and turns, rising in scale and intensity to “Hail Fair Oriana”, a reference to Elizabeth I herself.  The choir manages the “madrigalisms” in smooth undulations, allowing dynamics to organically wax and wane.  With the concert just getting started, the grand culmination was a little blown out the top of the vocals.  But the ending simply dazzled.

Moving on with Brahms’ prayerful Fest- und Gedenksprüche, transcendent interplay marks a refined but vigorous interpretation of Brahms’ sacred exploration, expressed with crisp German and symbiotic maneuvers through counterpoint.  The inner parts sang with warmth and surety, but the rich depth of the basses’ supportive lines and the sopranos’ soaring upper swells were riveting.

Nackkum PaikFinishing the first half was Nackkum Paik‘s premiere of Succession, a richly layered cultural expression using the biblical tale of the prophets Elijah and Elisha as a touchstone for the Korean-American experience.  LAMC members switched position to make room for the Los Angeles Chamber Choir, who made a guest appearance for this premiere.   This work is the sixth commission as part of Gershon’s “LA is the World” initiative, which aims to create partnerships that spotlight the area’s intensely multicultural environment. The Master Chorale hummed the piece’s opening notes as we saw (and heard) the guests file in, with scored musical whispers buzzing across the ensemble and then subsiding.

The program notes carefully describe a deliberate construction fraught with symbolism and what is clearly deep, personal meaning for the composer. Paik uses the mentor relationship between the two generations of prophets to illustrate how mainstream society (portrayed by LAMC, divided into two choirs) and the natural conflict created by the addition of a third element — the Chamber Choir — which adds simple Korean melodies, plus traditional percussion, e.g. wood block and Korean bass drum.  With wind effects and plucked piano strings meant to approximate the traditional gayageum (similar to a zither), the overall effect is more atmospheric and ghostly than programmatic. The work is pleasing and interesting enough, and was performed with finesse by both choirs, pianist Lisa Edwards and percussionists Theresa Diamond and John Wakefield. But the work does seem to be bound, rather than empowered, by the careful structuring that is only peripherally apparent to the listener.   It is soloists Chung Uk Lee (baritone, who also directs the guest choir) and Sunmi Shin (soprano) who stood out, with Shin stealing the show.

Lee sang with assertion, in clear, ringing tones, to be met by intense choral response.  There is a sense of mob mentality in moments of unbridled dissonance, but the addition of piano and percussion drive some momentum leading to the chariot scene, where power is transferred from one generation to the next.  The soprano soloist is exquisite, with a fluttering timbre reminiscent of a brightly-colored bird.  As urgent choral statements and tribal drumming make the hoofbeat of fiery horses palpable, a hummed unison scale marks the ascent to heaven, in a stairway of just six notes.  The final section is an amalgam of choral motifs that paint one imagined word — heavenly.

Shawn Kirchner -- photo by Russell ScoffinThe second half of the concert was dedicated to Shawn Kirchner’s Songs of Ascent, the final premiere as part of his three-year residency as LAMC’s designated creator of new tunes. The crowd was plenty whipped-up after the intermission, insisting on a bow from the composer even before we’d heard a note.  He took a modest bow from within the chorale’s ranks, as he is also a fine tenor, and has sung with LAMC for several years.

The work is well-crafted and instinctive.  Deft use of a mid-sized string orchestra, piano and two harps set the scene for baritone David Castillo to start us out.  He is the classic heroic baritone with a tenor top, and while the voice is not big enough to easily rise over the considerable force of orchestra and kick-ass choir, his vibrant, youthful sound is remarkable and a pleasure to hear.  The soprano soloist, Suzanne Waters, has grown tremendously in just the last few years, developing a rich, womanly sound and delivery that are deeply musical and make it all sound easy.

An orchestral interlude shows off Kirchner’s facility with instrumental color, painting emotions in layers of strings. Later, “Out of the Depths” throws repeated unison statements from section to section and runs the risk of tuning issues, but the composer’s singing experience and knowledge of this group prove that the ensemble can handle the texture with aplomb and a consistently smooth line.  The result is dramatic, a powerful plea to God in the face of despair. “I Will Life Up Mine Eyes Into the Hills” is a melodically driven and enchanting movement that epitomizes the joy to be found in choral music.

In the final movements, the orchestration is sprightly, which is where Gershon is particularly fun to watch, dancing in light precision, with hours of smart preparation evident in the choir’s ease of delivery.  The string ensemble’s sweet sound was galvanized by shared intensity and strong attacks, particularly in the upper strings.  As the choir and instruments quiet down for the final statement from Castillo, the last note is almost inaudible, as we’ve reached the beyond.

More about Shawn Kirchner on the LAMC website

Looking ahead

Next up:  Tan Dun’s Water Passion After St. Matthew, April 11 & 12

LAMC has also recently announced their 2015-16 season, and subscriptions are available now.  Read more about each concert slated for next year through the links under the “Season at a Glance” menu on their website.

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