Hope and chaos: LAMC shows Beethoven’s relevance amid downtown protests

After a week of jazzy contemplation and the never-ending loop of the La La Land soundtrack in my head (see it!), I was looking forward to hearing the Los Angeles Master Chorale perform Beethoven’s substantial Missa Solemnis on Saturday, January 21.  When artistic director Grant Gershon programmed and scheduled the work, however, he could not have known what the Saturday matinee performance would be competing with.

The day after the embattled inauguration of President Donald Trump, downtown LA was swarmed with hundreds of thousands of activists for the local manifestation of the widely publicized Women’s March, overwhelming Union Station and all downtown public transportation options, filling parking lots to the brim and clogging roadways between the north end of downtown and the OneLife rally at Exposition Park.  The two concurrent events put opposing views in close proximity to one another, but with an air of peaceful communication. With more than 750K protesters estimated for the Women’s March alone, everyone in the vicinity was certainly affected.

So it was not surprising that the maestro introduced the concert with a few words, starting with “Thank you all for being here on this extraordinary day,” which was greeted with thunderous applause. One could imagine that the applause sprang from several different thoughts, but it was all genuine and grateful, and exemplifies what art can do to bring people together.  This was our own protest: we were there for the music, and for the musicians who had worked so hard to bring it to us.

Gershon went on to explain a few things about this piece, which is less lauded than the composer’s 9th Symphony, but shares much with that iconic work.  The mass is also one of Ludwig’s final pieces, and shows the same emotional struggle and search for meaning that culminates in the 9th.  This is echoed in the inscription on the first page of the Missa Solemnis, which translates as “From the heart, may it return to the heart.”  The conductor told us to listen carefully to the tender fugue at end of the Credo (the third movement), as well as the endings of the succeeding two movements, the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei.  Beethoven plays throughout the work with the tensions between war and peace, life and death, chaos and structure, creating moments of massive, focused sound, then reverting to quiet reverence.  These endings seem to be his conclusions, placing the most focused emphasis on  phrases such as “and the life of the world to come”; “have mercy on us”; and finally, “grant us peace”.

All of this makes the work especially moving in times like these, and quite capable of transcending ideology to celebrate humanity.  It was just right.

The choir was in full force, with 110 singers that included a lot of faces that gained familiarity in Paul Salamunovich’s later years with LAMC, and the sound reflected that former aesthetic as well:  with a fine orchestra solidly on task, this concert sounded more like a combined effort with the LA Phil than the smaller-scale events that the more recent Master Chorale has become known for.  It was a nice homecoming, and sparked hope that these larger works will continue to balance LAMC’s seasons as the current transition into their new identity continues.

The major forces performed beautifully on this concert, which has become par for the course for this organization.  Gershon seems to understand the work well, and led the troops with style and precision.  He’s always fun to watch, leaving questions about a possible dance background. (Could there be videos hidden somewhere?  Hmmm…) That personality not only adds to the experience, but inspires the musicians he leads, and this performance was no different:  choir and orchestra were well-prepared, emotionally engaged, and the music was glorious. The Sanctus showed off the orchestra to best effect with an exquisite solo by concertmaster Roger Wilkie, and stunning woodwinds at the Benedictus.

The soloists, however, were uneven and less than satisfying, and sharing that assessment brings no joy.  Vocal power seemed to be a surprising problem, and whether they weren’t mic’d effectively or there were other factors involved was unclear. Placed in front of the choir but in the middle of the orchestra, they may simply have been too far removed from the audience.  While we heard more of some than others, they lacked the presence that this work begs for. But good stuff first:

L to R: Raquel González, Allyson McHardy, Arnold Livingston Geis, Rod Gilfry

Tenor Arnold Livingston Geis was the clear standout, and we’ve followed his steadily growing career with great interest.  This is still quite a young performer, but his voice and presence are coming into their own, and his sound has grown in the last couple of years into something even more supple and pleasing, with all the musical sensitivity and likability one could wish for.  He is a star in the making.

Soprano Raquel González took a bit of time to ease into it, but by the Credo she was sailing, riding waves of fioritura that shimmered and floated above all else. This was particularly cogent at the end of the Gloria, where her effortless line bobbed over the top of so many layers of joyful embroidery.

Mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy has some warm, lovely timbre in her voice, but a rather rattling vibrato that pervaded her sound came across as a significant distraction, and seemed to inhibit her her voice’s ability to flex and carry over the other elements.

With the normally marvelous Rod Gilfry singing the bass solos, it was frustrating to consistently hear this artist’s lower notes dwindle into oblivion, and although it seemed he was pushing his voice to the limits, he was quite difficult to hear through far too much of the work.  More surprising was his uncharacteristic staidness, while although this is a serious work (it’s right there in the title, after all), he approached it with a profound gravitas that seemed to rob him of the power that he usually unleashes in performance.  While there were luxurious moments, it’s likely that this simply isn’t his piece: it is best tackled by a true bass, whereas Gilfry’s sound is silk rather than deep velvet.

Overall, however, the concert was a notable success, yielding a great deal of affectingly beautiful music. There’s a transcendent, visceral moment in many masterworks where the full force of choral sound melds into the orchestral base, and both permeate the air in heady alchemy.  Beethoven excelled at creating these moments of pure joy, and they thrive in his magnificent 9th Symphony.  Even if you can’t remember the tune, the feeling of having been in the middle of that energy will stay with you.  This same magic is plentiful in the Missa Solemnis, and is one of the things that makes a beloved masterwork.

The audience was fully engaged, and had a hard time resisting the urge to applaud between movements, and rightfully so:  it was just that good.  The concert reminded us of Beethoven’s “other” great choral work, and was an exceptional example of why correct notes and singing loudly aren’t enough:  this kind of experience requires real musicality, that elusive and instinctive gift that allows collective passion to seep into the sound.  LAMC brings that gift in spades.

UPDATE:  LAMC’s representatives have clarified that there was actually no amplification at this concert, which is the norm for the acoustically stunning Disney Hall.  We had been misinformed about this particular concert by a third party, and offer sincere apologies for failing to go to the source on that question.

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