by Bryan Dahl, community reviewer
For whatever delightfully mysterious reason, it’s the experiences in life which completely shatter our expectations that seem the most rewarding. Never having been to a performance by the Angeles Chorale, my expectations couldn’t help changing by the minute as I sat in the balcony of the gorgeous First United Methodist Church of Pasadena and looked over the incredibly eclectic program.
The concert was cleverly conceived of as a series of previews to the Chorale’s upcoming season, taking the audience around the world and through several hundred years of culture within two hours. The music of the first half came from texts in Latin, Russian, Hebrew, and Japanese. I happened to bring a friend from Japan to the concert, and she raved about the choir’s accuracy and clarity with that demanding language.
The second Japanese piece, “Gloria,” was unique, one of the most memorable performances of the evening, featuring a beautifully haunting solo by pianist extraordinaire Dr. James Lent (the kind of talent who plays pieces like Schubert’s “Erlkönig” for fun). Its eerie melody alternated between verses in Latin and Japanese, standing out as one of many examples of Artistic Director and Conductor Dr. John Sutton’s impeccable and inspiring choices of material.
The choir and pianist were joined by a three-piece percussion section, complete with kettle and bass drums and a gong, for the first half finale of Carmina Burana’s “O Fortuna”, which left no inch of the massive church’s stained-glass windows and towering organ pipes untouched by the colossal sound. Dr. Sutton took it a step further than usual by ramping up the already furious tempo of the piece. To be fair, he did warn us beforehand, saying, “Fasten your seat belts!”
After the intermission, a new band came onstage and picked up not only electric and bass guitars, a violin and a keyboard, but also a banjo and mandolin. The second half would take the time-traveling world-tour through some of America’s bluegrass and the UK’s rock and roll. The women of the choir returned to the stage in traditional black tops with…tight blue jeans? And of course, the men followed suit–in jeans–joining the women’s harmonies of “Down to the River to Pray.” What could possibly come next?
Most people, older and younger generations alike, have heard Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” and there are plenty of good and bad renditions of it. Sutton’s treatment took the song’s original version to a new level with tremendous musical storytelling. The guitar intro started off in a traditional vein and the sensation of the audience’s communal sigh of nostalgia at the first plucked phrase was tangibly stirring. From there it branched off in new directions, first with soloist Ashley Morgan’s sultry voice and then with the choir’s “sonic booms”, as they suddenly swelled up and coiled back between the guitar and violin solos. It made for a truly awesome crossover of rock and classical traditions. As if this weren’t enough of a grand finale, Sutton managed to top it with U2’s “Still haven’t found what I’m looking for,” trading phrases back and forth between the choir and soloist David Loucks, then turning the chorus into an audience sing-along.
However, the award for the most enticing cliff-hanger goes to soloist Amanda Renée Achen’s two selections from Carmina Burana. The first, “In trutina,” spanning only about two minutes, is a lilting, gorgeous set up for the thirty-second display of jaw-dropping vocal ballet that comes with “Dulcissime.” It was more than enough time for Ms. Achen to brilliantly showcase the grace and dexterity of her voice, especially her upper range. To hear her sing through the entire work will surely make for a sublime evening.
This is what shattered expectations look like: teenagers in jeans and sneakers, frozen and wide eyed in their church-pew seats, listening to Mozart’s “Lacrimosa,” and hip old ladies singing along to U2. How rewarding is that? And applause… thunderous applause for Dr. Sutton. The battle he is fighting to preserve and assimilate this tremendous music into the frantic world of the younger generations was won not only by his progressive and fearless choice of material, but also by his understanding of how to teach, tease, lure and hook an audience of any age with the timeless perfection of a well-told story in music.