This year’s season opener from the LA Master Chorale would clearly be like no other. The group filed out slowly, dressed in casual clothes in a variety of grays, and barefoot. While the color scheme conceived by costume designer Danielle Dominigue Sumi created connections between the singers, the diversity of the group was immediately noticeable. There were no choir robes to artificially unify the singers, and it was an ensemble more disparate than the typical early music group, coming in all shapes and sizes (even very pregnant), with several ethnicities represented — just like the real Los Angeles.
This staged production of a neglected Renaissance masterwork has caught buzz in the last few weeks, with media and arts bloggers commenting on the involvement of one of opera’s most famous directors, the relatively unknown status of Orlando di Lasso’s Lagrime di San Pietro, etc. But some of the most impressive features of this presentation seemed, to some, a bit overhyped: So what if the work is memorized? This is Sellars’ first a cappella staging? What’s the big deal?
The fact is, there are excellent reasons why artistic director Grant Gershon and stage director Peter Sellars have both dubbed this one of the most difficult projects they’ve ever tackled. Yes, singers memorize music all the time. But not usually like this work, with its harmonic complexity and choral intricacy that require precision and sensitivity. And yes, Sellars is a maverick director who can probably handle anything. But staging an a cappella work (i.e. without instrumental accompaniment) leaves everything else more exposed, more unadulturated, and therefore tricker to execute successfully. The fact that the usually spare rehearsal schedule was beefed up to an LAMC-record-breaking 27 calls is testament to the simple fact that getting through these first performances is an achievement that creators and performers may be very proud of.
The idea that a Renaissance choral work would be “semi-staged” admittedly made some in the audience quite nervous. A few of my colleagues expressed a slight fear that even with this sort of artistic leadership, the movement might stray into the realm of show choir or “choralography”, both of which can be interesting, but which are too often just dreadful. Thankfully, those fears quickly vanished, as the performers’ movements seemed startlingly normal, emerging organically (if often indicative) from the intense emotions layered over and over into the polyphony. The story is familiar, as the work describes Peter’s denial of Jesus just before the crucifixion, and the intense shame he later felt at his own cowardice. This subject matter is made all the more devastating by the choreography, as Sellars’ approach seems to simultaneously address individuals and the group: all 21 singers represent Peter, but each feels the experience in their own way. Sometimes working as one body, sometimes clustered together in twos and threes, the troupe illustrates the many facets of the psychological drama, executed with an extreme level of concentration and an electrifying presence that, for such a disparate group, can only come from exceptional preparation.
The staging, rather than being superimposed onto the music, was a completely realized storytelling tool. The conductor, too, was somewhat staged, throwing out the last vestige of what we define as “concert” and making this a fully novel experience. Gershon, also barefoot, moved around through most of the performance, inhabiting different spots on the stage so the group’s focus and energy could shift to different areas for dramatic effect. Even sound was choreographed, as in the way the percussive “thud” of 20 singers dropping to their knees in sequence was made part of the musical landscape. (The mother-to-be in the group was spared some of the up-and-down, and this difference was managed beautifully.)
The group seemed to be in almost constant motion as they sang, but with a broad range of movement and intensity, giving their physical dynamics as full a spectrum as their voices. The singing, as would be expected from this extraordinary organization, was simply exquisite: a rich flow of mellifluous sound that seems to erupt from thin air. But while the voices were tightly knit and seamless, melding together in liquid bliss, the bodies were individual, each moving within their own idiosyncrasies. These are not dancers, calibrated to make each movement the same way. But they are indeed creative artists, and Sellars put the performers to their full use.
The result kept the audience riveted — mostly very, very quiet, with many even holding their breath. The hall was almost entirely silent throughout, with just a bit of coughing in the breaks (especially after one singer gave a quiet little cough after a section, resulting in an amusing example of audience psychology). But overall, the audience was rapt, giving attention far beyond mere respect.
There are a few decisions that may have been influenced by logistics: the long pauses between the many sections, for instance, may have been taken in part because the singers simply needed a chance to rest. This score is unrelenting, with only short breaks on each voice part, and this is one of the reasons that so many early music ensembles pace themselves when they perform such lengthy polyphonic works: it’s easy to burn out early. Memorized, the mental stamina required is at least doubled, and staged, the amount of focus must rise exponentially. On a dramatic level, these seeming chasms of silence in between movements are courageous, and only draw more focus from the audience. Realistically, they may be an important tool that allows the singers to sound so lovely, all the way to the end.
One of the other decisions is a bit more puzzling, as while it is forgivable, was not so effective: About three quarters of the way into the performance, the group split into two, dividing mainly according to gender, and sat on opposite sides of the stage in long rows, each behind a music stand. This is the only portion of the work where music was used, and while Disney Hall normally seems a cozy, intimate venue, the stage felt mammoth during this section. The singers, perhaps exhausted, retreated into their scores in exactly the way they hadn’t before, losing the palpable connection with one another, and temporarily negating the effect of memorization. Again, this may be an issue of stamina, or perhaps there just wasn’t enough time to get that section memorized. But it was a noticeable shift, and if nothing else, brought home the level of difficulty that comes with this project.
The timing of the work, of course, is canny. In a world where terror is ongoing and our 24/7 news cycle makes us forever aware of the chaos, lines like “Nothing is secure in a world of fear and terror” ring especially true. This is no accident, of course, as the translation is clearly displayed above the performers’ heads on supertitle screens. Peter’s woe at his own failure gets at the very heart of guilt and depression: “Afraid to die, I denied life.” Lagrime is a profound and carefully crafted work, and its power to provoke thought and feeling are no more relevant when the nation faces one of the most divisive and frustrating elections in US history.
But no less important is the impact of such a project on the classical world, as we face our own artistic evolution. This dynamic presentation eradicates the notion that music of this period should be controlled, quiet and rigidly precise, to the detriment of the story and the passions expressed. This sort of stagecraft gives choral music myriad options, but also reminds us in no uncertain terms that elements such as James F. Ingalls’ fully interactive lighting design and Sellars’ use of space are every bit as important as musical preparation. With all elements combined, the piece ended in orange light, almost red, singersin two facing lines and with Gershon in the middle, where he seemed to paint the music into being. The effect was soul-shattering, and resulted in the eruption of a standing ovation that was immediate, lasting and fully deserved. The performers, spent and elated, beamed as much as the audience. It was truly one of the finest choral performances I have ever witnessed.
What a marvelous start for this particular season. LAMC is in the midst of some very important changes in their structure, their branding and their future planning, particularly since the arrival of CEO Jean Davidson last year. While the organization has enjoyed a solid reputation in the choral world for decades, their overall impact on the classical community has been primarily local. But programming such as Lagrime and last year’s Alexander’s Feast show that Gershon and LAMC have enthusiastically embraced their role not only as new music masters, but also as envelope-pushers within established repertoire. These projects, in the wake of the “Other Mary” tour of 2012, for instance, mark an investment in specific, portable projects that can travel to venues worldwide, and may be the beginning of a new era for the ensemble. This has been hinted at by the top brass, and we’ll just have to wait for further revelations about what they really have in store.
On a more global scale, Lagrime reinforces the notion that choral performance has much room to grow, and marks the need for dramatic rethinking on the part of director and performer, but also from promoter and even audience member. We need more music presented as holistic experience rather than staid concert. Artistic leaders, by tapping into out-of-the-box concepts, have a real shot at revitalizing our “industry”, and music lovers should be prepared to leave expectations at the door. Singers, in turn, must be prepared to move, to act, to build exceptional musicianship and to be ready for everything. The reality is that too many working vocalists are not capable of what these performers achieved. We all need to up our game, and that alone will be a very beautiful evolutionary act.
The Los Angeles Master Chorale continues their season with a series of holiday-themed events through December.
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Photos by Tao Ruspoli,
Courtesy of the LA Master Chorale