Stravinsky’s wedding and bits of John Adams with the LA Master Chorale

by Natalie Mann, Lister reviewer

John Adams — photo by Christine Allcino

Groundbreaking. Indefinable. Accessible.

All these words have been used to describe American composer John Adams, but they also increasingly tell us about the work of Los Angeles Master Chorale artistic director Grant Gershon. It is fitting that these two classical luminaries have had a long working relationship, dating back to the early days of the LA Opera and their production of Nixon in China.

Gershon’s work with Adams has led to a project that includes curating new piano reductions of choral excerpts from works such as The Gospel According to Mary, The Death of Klinghoffer, and A Flowering Tree, and the March 26 performance at Walt Disney Concert Hall marked the first opportunity for these new realizations to be heard by an audience. The hall was full of listeners, too, eager to hear these works and the program’s Stravinsky centerpiece.

Lisa Edwards, who is LAMC’s pianist and music assistant, accompanied The Gospel According to Mary. The angular sounds of the work “It is Spring” reverberated through the hall, and made the most of the interplay between the male and female voices that seemed to recall medieval harmonic structures and motives. There were striking repetitions of words, highlighting the onomatopoeic phrase “I sink to the throat.” Soloist Niké St. Clair brought the voice of Mary to life in this excerpt with a vibrant mezzo sound.

Excerpts from Adams’ operas The Death of Klinghoffer and A Flowering Tree were accompanied by pianists Vicki Ray and Gloria Cheng. The choruses from Klinghoffer provided an opening glimpse of the opera with the “Chorus of the Exiled Palestinians” and “Chorus of the Exiled Jews.” The choruses were haunting, with floating sonorities that cascaded down on the listener. The women of the Master Chorale came together in a most beautiful unified sound, offering the audience one voice to portray the beauty and sorrow of the work. The “Flores!” of Flowering Tree offered a light and bright foil of sound through a spritely tempo, and words that seemed improvised like sellers on the street. The chorus moved nimbly through the work in a richly colored texture.

The works by Adams were rounded out with choruses from Doctor Atomic and Nixon in China. Ably played by Bryan Pezzone, and his long history of playing and enjoying Adam’s music shone through. The final “Cheers!” scene from Nixon was designed to complement the energy of Les Noces after intermission.

Stravinsky’s Les Noces is an almost unwieldy work, with 4 pianos, percussion and large chorus. The radical rhythms and bawdy vocal lines draw the listener back into the scene of Russian wedding festivities. It’s no wonder the piece has been noted as a favorite of both Adams and Gershon. Stravinsky’s work is both experimental and emotionally satisfying at the same time.

The well-balanced sound of the LA Master Chorale was joined by soloists Elissa Johnston, soprano, and Ms. St. Clair, who stood in for an ailing Peabody Southwell. St. Clair’s supple vocal sound and glistening timbre were a perfect fit for challenging Russian vocal lines. Tenor Todd Strange shone in many vocal moments, but bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee’s grand performance seemed to steal the show. Brownlee was commanding vocally, rising above the sometimes cluttered and frenetic sounds of the ensemble with ease. His fully invested character came to life both vocally and physically.

The chorus is the workhorse in this piece, deftly spinning through the Russian and providing a well-sculpted palette of sounds. Though the work seemed a bit on the edge at moments, Gershon held the helm with precision and ever-present grace.

Next up:  “Wade in the Water” on April 30.

The LA Master Chorale has also announced their 2017-2018 season, which holds more excitement in store.






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