A Soviet-trained Estonian and a USC grad from Reno, Arvo Pärt and Eric Whitacre couldn’t be much more different. But the parallels within their music and in their audiences are astonishing, as both composers have risen to enviable heights of fame, in and out of the classical community. They both write music that is easily accessible, empirically beautiful and exciting in their own innovative approaches to the genre. Finally, both have achieved extraordinary success in areas where traditionally-minded composers may fear to tread: Pärt’s mystical music has struck a popular nerve, breaking sales records and reaching well beyond classical audiences. And Whitacre’s “Virtual Choir” project on YouTube, with four composite videos created so far and many millions of views, has opened the door to choral music for many millions worldwide, not just for listening, but giving singers all over the globe a chance to participate. (See his TED talk about the project here.)
Pärt’s Veni Creator, the first work on last Saturday’s program by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, bounces fragments of unison sound from section to section, transforming a simple prayer into a mystical plea. This technique is echoed somewhat in the group’s encore (spoiler!), Solfeggio, a piece popular with a diverse array of choral ensembles worldwide, for its novel feel and simple, playful beauty. This tintinnabuli approach, named by Pärt himself and credited to him, builds harmony by breaking melody apart and piecing it together like “little bells”, transforming texture into delightful symbiosis. His Cantate, for instance, evokes almost tangible images of bells, church spaces and children’s choirs, not through direct mimicry, but through structural suggestion, as if the music is painted in layers.
Whitacre has his own way of playing with texture, building some of the best thick chords in the business, yet building a sound with luminous transparency. His vision reaches well beyond the traditional stacks of thirds, but rather than adding more notes, Whitacre makes clear deliberate choices to augment tonality without losing the center.
There is a sense of impish rebellion in both composers, but with a deeper purpose — neither artist is merely playing around. In his early years, Pärt rebelled against Soviet ideals and restrictions, daring to include explicit statements of faith in his work, even while in school, and easily, joyfully stepping outside the bounds of “acceptable” compositional forms. Whitacre, on the other hand, rebels against classical stuffiness, writing music on universal themes that is very easy to love. LAMC’s artistic director, Grant Gershon, clearly feels a strong connection to the work of both composers, and led a largely finely tuned group of more than 100 singers through a sublime collection of works, largely alternating composers throughout the program.
Pärt seems to draw his most profoundly moving moments from liturgical material, as evidenced in Morning, with all of the abandon of ecstatic expression, or the Missa Syllabica, where his use of silence is startling, giving us a chance to listen to God for a change.
Whitacre, on the other hand, seems most inspired by nature and poetry. This is most obvious in the first half finale, Cloudburst, conducted by associate conductor Lesley Leighton in a looser style than usual, but no less precise. This showstopping work includes multiple solos, percussion by Timm Boatman, Theresa Dimond and John Wakefield, extended choral techniques and scored claps, snapping and body drumming that create a rainy day soundscape that both evokes memories and creates a new one, to be tucked away for the next storm. Within choral sections, pitches bend in the same way that light shifts through streaming rain on a window. Baritone Abdiel Gonzalez‘s few solo bars showcased his warm and liquid voice with the parlando delivery of a friend sharing something important. Mezzo-soprano Callista Hoffman-Campbell offered a brief but beautifully executed solo as well, , and Kristen Toedtman stepped out of the ensemble for a moment to deliver spoken narration in Spanish, with an urgency that held us in the palm of her hand. Handbells were well-prepared, which is refreshing when so often they’re included in choral rehearsals as an afterthought. The total package, with dramatic lighting cues to boot, was a spectacular finish to the first half, and a triumph for Leighton and the entire ensemble.
The second half begins with Pärt’s Morning Star and Whitacre’s Sainte-Chapelle, both lovely expressions of choral music as salve for the soul, and Pärt’s Beatitudes begins with organist Szymon Grab at main console. Slow harmonies rock back and forth in counterpoint, creating a fluid lockstep with the singers. The organist’s job is not easy, however — we’re reminded of the multi-limbed versatility and split focus required to execute this piece: hands, feet, stops, volume shifts, all while watching the conductor backward, through a mirror. Grab has been living in the Los Angeles area for the last few years, and by the time this line has been written, has likely already flown back to his native Poland. This talented young musician has made a big impression on the local community. Hopefully we’ll see him again soon.
Beatitudes is a slow burn, ever rising in intensity. The organ is dappled in light, an example of great lighting design throughout — not overproduced, but enough to occasionally expand the experience into the visual and offer another dimension to the performance.
The program ends with two of Whitacre’s works, the ever-popular Sleep and the choral cycle The City and the Sea, a setting five poems by E.E. Cummings that uses “all white keys, except for one B-flat”, we are told from the stage. With or without the black keys, however, the piano part is devilishly challenging, and navigated with the usual aplomb by the wonderful Lisa Edwards, LAMC’s wizard of the keyboard. Whitacre’s music is deceptively familiar, mastering the warmth and comfort of easy melodies and rich traditional chords, then leaning into a very modern palette of wild imaginings and interplay between lines and sections. It’s no wonder that both of these composers have been so popular beyond the usual classical audience.
After “little man in a hurry”, the last movement of the last Whitacre piece, Gershon led the choir in the aforementioned “impromptu” performance of Pärt’s very popular Solfeggio, which, though lovely, is fairly sedate, and was a little anticlimactic after the rollicking jubilation of the last programmed work. An understandable choice, perhaps, as this is the last program of the season. Nevertheless, we left happy and sated. It’s been a good year, with more good things to come next season.
In other LAMC news…
With the pending departure of President/CEO Terry Knowles after many years of service to the Chorale, it is particularly gratifying to see both Knowles and artistic director Grant Gershon honored by Chorus America, bestowed with the 2015 Distinguished Service Award and the Louis Botto Award for Innovative Action and Entrepreneurial Zeal, respectively.
BREAKING: According to a press release from just this morning, Ms. Knowles’ successor has been named, as Jean Davidson, currently the head of New York Live Arts, has been confirmed by LAMC’s board as the new President and CEO of the Chorale, and will take over as of August 31, 2015. Davidson’s previous experience also lies in the dance world, and indicates a knack for expansion of arts nonprofits. Sounds like there are exciting things to come.