Made in L.A.: Local focus reveals the heart of LA Master Chorale

Made in L.A. is both a new initiative and a special concert program presented on Nov 15 by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, at downtown’s iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall.  With the aim of drawing attention to the considerable talents of our local choral composers, this concert definitely hit the mark.

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Disney Hall’s organ, lit with the colors of the French flag, in memory of this month’s victims of terrorism.

Artistic director Grant Gershon‘s remarks before Sunday’s concert were thoughtful and very appropriate, in light of last week’s terrorist attacks on the other hemisphere.  Making reference to Leonard Bernstein’s 1963 quote, Gershon also dedicated the concert “to the memory of the victims of hate around the world”, in a much-needed salve for audience and performers.  Gershon spoke before several program sets, as he often does, and the crowd loves it, especially with hopes that this new initiative will see that “LA will be clearly recognized as the center of the choral universe”.  (Big cheers!)  From what we heard this particular evening, that claim already has considerable weight, and as there was so much really good music in the program, I must now ask you to bear with me in what may be my longest review to date.  Here we go:

The first two pieces were switched from the original (printed) plan, beginning the concert with the splendid Ave Maria by Morten Lauridsen.  This is a piece that wraps around the listener like a blanket of sonic lusciousness, whether you’re performing or listening, and it’s a joy to sing.  Joyful declaration dissolves into such serenity that it left the audience stunned for a few seconds.  This work has already been well proven, as it has been part of two Grammy-nominated recordings, including LAMC’s own Lux Aeterna album from 1998.  When “Skip” stood to take his bow, we realized that the Chorale had made an unusual choice in terms of where they seated this program’s numerous composers — enjoying the superlative sound from the upper orchestra, they were rather separated from the stage, leaving Gershon to search carefully for each one to acknowledge them after each work, and only two made the trek down to take their bows from the stage.  But neither composers nor crowd seemed deterred by this:  there was a lot of joy in that room.

Next came The Whole Sea in Motion by Dale Trumbore, a choral setting of a moving selection from Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey.  Supertitles were very helpful here, with a piece so text-focused.  Sparkling layers are a challenge to vocal clarity, but this fine ensemble handled it well, with clean lines and crisp diction.  Trumbore often does much with very little — one section used only two vocal lines and drew from a collection of just a few notes, but the burbling, liquid piano accompaniment (played superbly as always by Lisa Edwards) combined with the voices to create a rich, living texture.

Moira Smiley is known locally more for modern folk-based concoctions and creative ensemble work, and it was marvelous to see what she could do with a larger group and more traditional structure.  Using color techniques such as whispers, tongue clicks and bass drones, as well as her signature note-bending style, the choir painted images of desert vs. water with onomatopoetic motifs which were batted back and forth between sections to create bubbling and soulful effects.  This work is particularly apt in response to the current drought in California, and intriguing in the way it shows off Smiley’s broad range and compositional skill.

Matthew Brown is an active tenor member of the chorale and already a favorite creator with several local choral ensembles.  The next work on the program, Another Lullaby for Insomniacs, shows the sound sculptor’s courage: Brown doesn’t shy away from letting chords bend into dissonance or twist their way into neighboring keys.  While the piano is active and exploratory, acting out the angst of sleeplessness, the choral parts soothe it away, with the singers leaning into the edges gracefully.  The overall effect is (to quote the text) from “otherwhere”, and settles into a soothing hum.  At the end, the petulant insistence of a single repeated note, high in the piano’s range, shows the dichotomy of those nights when your brain won’t stop amid the silence.  It’s a beautifully crafted piece, and well executed.

The first half ended with the U.S. premiere of a set by Jeff Beal, entitled The Salvage Men, and made up of five movements.  Starting with “A Very Long Moment”, this feels like a very personal piece — grounded in emotional, rather than architectural composing.  It is, however, well-built, and explores the many-colored realities of a radical life change.  The second movement, “Spiderweb”, is reminiscent of the busywork of life, always doing something.  “Virga” is limpid and hopeful, describing the wonders of nature in sweeping lines of music and text.  “Age” is more active, dramatic, and edgier.  While some earlier sections washed over us and encouraged a pleasantly passive receivership of the music, this movement demands more attention and more active listening, and many audience members could be seen shifting forward, fascinated.  The demi-eponymous final movement is a melding of ranges and timbres, using vocal effects to tell a story that goes deep:  “Thank God…”  It seems a song of our earthly masses, an ode to the way the world fits together and is taken apart again, in an ongoing cycle of creation and rebirth.

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The second half began with the world premiere of Paul Chihara‘s Ave Maria/Scarborough Fair for chorus, oboe and soprano solo.  Starting with the classic chant from the menfolk, the “choir of angels” (12 women placed above the main chorus, at the back of the stage) was just a bit rickety at first, probably because it’s very difficult to maintain the sheer color demanded of the women in that section.  But after a brief hiccup, they recovered well, and the effect was appropriately ethereal.  The two classic melodies are very clearly defined, but the work is far from tune-dependent, as it migrates through key boundaries and shifts the mood almost on a dime.  The oboe, played cleanly by Leslie Reed, blended seamlessly, quite vocally, with the chorus.  Soprano soloist Tamara Bevard, who possesses one of the most haunting soprano voices in town, took a short solo and made it very memorable.

Composer Shawn Kirchner is well-known to the LAMC crowd, and as both chorale member and former composer-in-residence, he has developed quite a claque of his own — the audience response when Memorare was announced was nothing short of ecstatic.  This work was conducted by associate conductor Lesley Leighton.  Her style is decidedly different from Gershon’s, with equal focus, but movements perhaps more overtly built for precision.  The piece is playful and energetic.  It is sung in Latin, but accompanied by supertitles in English.  Leighton and the chorus shone brightest through sections of big sound, showing off their considerable power and grandeur, and Kirchner’s work is rousing and visceral, a standout in an already exceptional program.

The final work, Mangá Pakalagián (“Ceremonies”) by Nilo Alcala, drew elements from the composer’s own heritage, and was performed with  Subla, a kulintang ensemble playing percussive instruments specific to Filipino culture, and featuring Guro Danongan “Danny” S. Kalanduyan, mastering of the kulintang, which, as the central focus of the instruments, is a brightly decorated stand that holds eight small gongs.  Several of us were surprised to hear from maestro Gershon that this was the choir’s first time singing in Tagalog (actually the Maguindanao dialect), which can be a challenge for English-speaking tongues.   This world-premiere piece is divided into three ritual movements, each starting with a very tribal/primal improvisation as a sample of each of the ceremonial styles.  (I strongly recommend you read through Thomas May’s excellent program notes, as he did a wonderful job of explaining how this complex piece was created and fits together.)  The choir enters with lightning-fast delivery and a devilish line, the singers’ efforts more visible than usual.  This piece is a stretch, even for this normally unfazeable clan.  Sal Malaki, consistently one of the best tenors on the local landscape, was well-matched by fellow soloist Ayana Haviv, who sounds better than ever.  While the chorus became a blanket of percussive vocals, the featured solos were the human spirit of the first movement.

Composer Nilo Alcala's concert finale earned a well-deserved standing ovation.
Composer Nilo Alcala’s concert finale earned a well-deserved standing ovation.

Alcala’s second movement lets the male singers hit things too, as they clack rocks together, stomp feet and the choir builds layer upon layer of chant, creating the effect of many voices, many conversations. Soprano soloist Hayden Eberhart sailed through the stratosphere, and there was no stopping the general expression of toe-tapping gratitude.  Moving on to the finale, baritone Abdiel Gonzalez seemed especially “on” this evening, stretching his range and often dwelling on the nether notes.  Through slides, shakes and exclamations, his voice was sure, with rich and vibrant sound, even through voiced hums, grunts and more.  The choir, too, had special vocal techniques to tackle here, which sounded surprisingly organic to the same versatile crop of singers who have mastered Renaissance purity and Verdian majesty so thoroughly.  Improvised mutterings and broad chords were powerful enough to rival Carmina burana, bringing the power of ritual to one of the world’s least staid concert halls.  There is a communal quality to this work that is spectacularly engaging, clear through to a full-throttle, eye-popping finale.

A note about costuming:  For a while now, the group has eschewed the former tradition of matching outfits for the women, and it’s been a good move into modern performance aesthetics.  With the men in dark-colored suits, shirts and ties, and the women in various arrangements of black that allow for personal taste and individual shape, the ensemble looks elegant and professional, without the annoying matchy-matching that is more likely to look old-fashioned. Brava — it works, and everyone looks great.

The program certainly reached its stated goal, showing the diverse range of creativity and talent we enjoy here in SoCal.  Although the first half was a bit homogenous, grouping the pieces with the most in common aesthetically, the second half more than made up for any small want of diversity, and the whole was delightful.  We look forward to seeing much more from LAMC’s new local initiative.


Organ and Alcala photos by ALN Images.

LAMC’s next season concerts are their six holiday performances, with something for everyone.  Check their website for details and to purchase tickets.

Disclaimers:  Lauri is a former member of LAMC, many members of the ensemble are Listers, and Dale Trumbore was part of our most recent unSUNg season as composer and performer.  This feature, however, has been prepared with a concerted effort (forgive the pun) to remain objective.

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