The audience began applauding as soon as the first singers filed into position on the steps at the front of the sanctuary of the Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church. Without any introduction, Artistic director and conductor Dr. Lauren Buckley Schaer launched the Hollywood Master Chorale into a rousing rendition of Zion’s Walls from Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs. Directly over their heads, the brilliant jewel tones of a leaded glass rose window glowed in the rays of the afternoon sun, a beautiful image to go with the soaring sound of a chorus in sync with its director.
After a few words of welcome from Dr. Schaer, the chorale returned to their program with a lilting and sassy English madrigal, Fair Phyllis, by John Farmer, then dove straight into a Cornish folk song by Gustav Holst, I Love My Love, melancholic and yearning.
Two Flowers, a composition by Nick Strimple which was commissioned and premiered by the Hollywood Master Chorale for its Voices of Los Angeles project in 2013, drew the singers together in tightly focused unisons and dissonances in a pairing of two poems by William Blake, The Sick Rose and Ah! Sun-flower. Both poems address love and death, and the composition uses their themes to provide a broad palate of vocal color. Beginning with a piano unison in all voices, the music separated into divergent lines that followed the “invisible worm” into a “howling storm” of full harmony in The Sick Rose, fading to muted dissonance at the end of the poem, then moving into a bold statement of Ah! Sun-flower, ebbing and flowing into a full-voiced climax greater than the first, then declining immediately to a final pianissimo. John Gardner’s Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day provided a lighthearted and playful change of pace in two minutes of 7/4 meter, with a tambourine accompaniment by Akiko Mimura-Lazare.
Dr. Schaer’s impressive ability to control dynamics and tempos kept the concert lively and gave a quality of spontaneity to the well-rehearsed repertoire. The chorale members had to give her their full attention just to keep up, and she took full advantage of it with accelerandos and rallentandos, the sound surging and releasing cleanly in concert starts and cutoffs. The women outnumbered the men in the chorale, 2-to-1, but the men maintained a cohesive, well-blended presence that nicely balanced the ladies’ lighter sound. The selection of 20 pieces to represent the 20 years of HMC’s history provided an interesting mix of musical styles and periods and offered a delightful variety of textures, from the polyphony of the 16th century to contrasting 20th century treatments of James Agee’s Sure On This Shining Night – one by Samuel Barber and the other by Morten Lauridsen.
Mozart was represented by his elegant and challenging Ave Verum Corpus and the Regina Coeli, featuring sopranos Caroline Merrill and Reneice Charles, altos Eve Cockrill and Megan Morrow, tenor Brandon Hynum and baritone Timothy Campbell. Randall Thompson also scored a double with the inclusion of his hymn-like The Road Not Taken and his most popular composition, the ethereal and mysterious cascading Alleluia, which was followed by Louis Lewandowski’s Hal’luyah, a more traditional treatment of the sentiment from the 19th century based on the text of Psalm 150, still one of the most popular choral works in Jewish music.
A smooth, warm unison by the men at the beginning of Mendelssohn’s Verleih uns Frieden created a reverent, prayer-like mood for the delivery of the text, “Mercifully grant us peace, Lord God, in our time. There is no other who will fight for us but you, our only God.” There Is a Star, also by Mendelssohn, celebrated the prophecy of the birth of Christ in a bright, declamatory style for a triumphant conclusion to the first half of the program.
After a brief intermission, Dr. Schaer began the second half of the concert with Tollite Hostias, the final movement from Saint-Saëns’ Oratorio de Noël, in traditional harmonies of the mid-19th century. Hymn to the Eternal Flame followed, by Stephen Paulus, composed in 2005 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of death camps in Europe following World War II, drawing its text from Psalm 106. The chorale introduced two young ladies from the Youth Chorus to sing the solo lines, “Ev’ry breath is in you, ev’ry cry, ev’ry longing in you, ev’ry singing, ev’ry hope, ev’ry healing, woven into fire…”. They were joined by Reneice Charles, whose clear, young soprano completed the solo meditation on the unity of the human spirit.
Love was a regular theme, expressed beautifully in David Dickau’s If Music Be the Food of Love, tender and poignant in its alternating of a cappella choral phrases with brief piano solos, and in William Bennett’s Come Live With Me, an upbeat, unaccompanied treatment of Christopher Marlowe’s intensely romantic idyll. You Are the New Day, written by John David in a moment of personal crisis, projected that love into a greater receptacle – the infinite source of life which generates each new day, in spite of everything humanity does to threaten its continuation. This piece particularly suited the chorale and showed off their abilities to sing close harmonies a cappella and to build a full choral crescendo, then drop sweetly back to close in a controlled piano. William Dawson’s Ain’t’a That Good News rounded out the concert with a bright, zesty finish and gave the audience every reason to rise as a body in a long, enthusiastic standing ovation.
Dr. Haesung Park accompanied the chorale on the piano and organ, equally expert on both instruments and never overpowering the voices. Comments from the audience were highly complimentary of the musicians, demonstrating that the Hollywood Master Chorale has won the support of its community.