Mass by many: “Missa urbis angelorum” and LA Choral Lab

by Norge Yip, Lister reviewer
Michael Alfera, LACL’s Artistic Director

On Sunday, March 22, L.A. Choral Lab and their Conductor and Artistic Director, Michael Alfera, unveiled Missa urbis angelorum (Mass of the City of Angels) at Zipper Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. The modern hall, nestled in the Colburn School, was abuzz with patrons purchasing and picking up tickets for this exciting evening. But before launching into the world premiere, the show started with another mass – one that is about 450 years old.

Missa o quam gloriosum est Regnum by Tomas Luis de Victoria is the type of work that allows L.A. Choral Lab to shine. The better the performers, the fewer individual voices you can discern, and without looking, you would not have known that there were as many as 22 people singing. The entire ensemble, particularly sopranos and basses, handled the unisons and straight-tone singing demanded of such Renaissance compositions quite capably. Alfera conducted elegantly and with the same precision he is capable of when playing piano. Each singer had a music stand, but it was a pleasure to see their individual relaxed postures. The mild dynamics displayed their passion and connection to the music and the a cappella set was food for the ears.

Jumping to 2015 AD, the young musicians were joined by Yi-Ju Lain on piano, Cameron Stone on cello and Wai Wah Wan on timpani for the evening’s featured work: the new mass which is the result of a joint commission of six Los Angeles-area composers, definitely not your grandmother’s mass!

Few set out to compete with Schubert, Gounod or Caccini, but this new Ave Maria by Fullerton resident Nove Deypalan, a piece originally intended for soprano solo, could easily become another favorite. The sweet melody began with the women in unison who gently passed the baton to the men, then the men were accompanied by the women in harmony. Deypalan chose to keep the piano accompaniment simple, complementing the voices gorgeously. The piece concluded in unison with a high soprano octave, proving that often, simple is truly best.

David Stal, a resident of Los Angeles and a bass for LACL, wrote the Kyrie. Not an especially religious man, he treated the text, “Lord, have mercy; Christ have mercy,” as a request for forgiveness from a friend. The movement began explosively with timpani, piano, cello and chorus. Throughout, many chords were brightly colored by a 7th that almost gave the ocular sensation of light. This, alternating with the men in unison and featuring the cello, made for a very exciting work. Toward the end the ensemble closed to a hum, again featuring the cello.

Alex Tovar, also of Los Angeles, gave us a Gloria much different from what we are used to. As a composer who is influenced by Glass, Bacharach and jazz, the next few minutes transported us to something not unlike a musical featuring a circus act. Basses bom-bom. Sopranos ah-ah. And a rambunctious melody ensued. But the piece is not without complexities, and the singers delivered it expertly with precise dissonances that were more sweet than harsh. Switching from Latin to English and back again, this musically humorous and clever piece was an audience favorite that received well-deserved laughs.

Jeffrey Bernstein, who had conducted the Pasadena Master Chorale in his current home town of Altadena just a few hours earlier, took an interesting approach to the Credo. The longest section of the mass, text-wise, Bernstein translated the Latin into English in his own interpretation, with the exception of the last line, “Dios te tenga en su nanto mano.” For this reason, the movement is entitled The Human Journey. Bernstein generally treated higher notes to represent the spirit, middle tones for emotion and lows as the body. It seemed that every combination possible was presented, with the men’s voices countering the women and each carrying the phrase; women droning while basses had the theme; ladies on melody while the men hummed with the cello. Each voice section complemented the other before coming together to sing the Spanish and then passing to the piano and cello. An organum chant, reflection of the theme and unison followed to conclude with a rapturous, organic “Amen.”

David Volpe of Hollywood composed what was likely the most challenging piece, “Blessed is He”. Also coming from a non-Christian standpoint, Volpe holds a reverence for the sacred music historically performed in cathedrals. The resulting modern piece reflects that tradition in a glittery, complex, classical contemporary work. Starting in a brisk 10/4 meter, this most energetic section of the mass was delivered impressively by the ensemble. The middle section moved into a 4/4 meter but never lost its energy. And the star of this performance? Most definitely Cameron Stone, who danced as much as anyone can dance while playing cello!

Max Mueller of Valley Village gave us the final movement, “Agnus Dei”. Interpreting a theme of forgiveness, Mueller ultimately urges us to forgive ourselves for insecurity due to friends, society, or anything that makes us feel like less than what we truly are. With the choir set on stage and an antiphonal quartet above, a hymn-like introduction led to alto Sevan Dekmezian‘s first words: “There’s a zit!!” The choir continued to fill the hall with a traditional-sounding “Agnus Dei” as a backdrop to the narrative, which described popping the zit. Tenor Frank Hobbs told a tale of how lucky he was that his girlfriend Natalie tolerates all of his imperfections. Each soloist touchingly shared their stories of struggles and unhappiness, thankfully moving beyond the pain that held each of them back. “I’m not your servant, I’m your boyfriend. At least I was. I forgive myself. I forgive you. I forgive me. I am free.”

Members of LA Choral LabThis concert conluded L.A. Choral Lab’s premiere season. They will return to Zipper Concert Hall in October 2015.

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