On Sunday, April 30, the Los Angeles Master Chorale treated audiences to a concert almost entirely of American spirituals. Entitled “Wade in the Water”, the program served both as homage to a beloved spiritual of the same title, but also as invocation of water, naturally flowing expressions of the soul, and communal spirit. It included selections from across American history, Korean contemporary composition, and European masterpieces of the 20th century.
Artistic director Grant Gershon designed this program to elevate and celebrate the spiritual as a genre, along with folk and national music of all origins and style periods. He also cast light on the contrasting ways that writers have been inspired to set these melodies that “belong to everybody.”
To H.T. Burleigh, we owe a debt of gratitude: that these deceptively simple – but never uninteresting – melodies of the spirituals were preserved, just before they would have been forgotten forever. They are melodies that still feel authentic and timeless.
Therefore, the program switched unpredictably from one harmonic palette to another. To “go with the flow” was not only apropos for the evening’s theme, but was key to enjoyment. Metaphors of visual art are useful here. Alice Parker and Robert Shaw’s Amazing Grace along with Moira Smiley’s new Stand in that River were like ikebana pottery. Moses Hogan showed us oil pastels. Ubi caritas and Alleluia were watercolors. Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor could have been frescoed scenes. Cum sancto spiritu was tapestry. The concert had its flaws: some transitional moments in the Vaughan Williams lacked ensemble quality and investment. But there were many significant moments throughout the evening.
The Vaughan Williams Mass in G minor, which is for unaccompanied double choir and four soloists, anchored the first half of the program. Maestro Gershon leaned simply into the starkness of the work, while allowing for moments of tone painting to flash. This seemed to reflect the atmosphere after World War I, when Vaughan Williams wrote the mass. The solo quartet sang satisfactorily from the rear corner of the stage. There was particular assurance and beauty of tone from both soprano Andrea Zomorodian and mezzo-soprano Laura Smith Roethe.
The Word was God is a shorter gem of a piece, sparkling amidst this trove of folk tunes, and a lively opener for the second half of the program. The choristers shared their enjoyment of this song inspired by the Book of Genesis. They stood in what was a third or fourth arrangement, with pairs of singers of each voice part standing in mixed formation.
Contemporary Korean composer Hyo-won Woo wove boisterous rhythmic patterns, as one might weave a boldly colored geometric tapestry. Text was often accented counter to natural declamation, but this did not diminish it. The chorale’s precision in these syncopations, one complex strand after another, overlain by multiple voice parts, dazzled the ear. The impression of the omnipresent and vibrant holy spirit was authentic.
The addition of piano on several selections was welcome. Bright Morning Stars was arranged by Shawn Kirchner for baritone soloist, SATB, and piano. Bass-baritone Luc Kleiner’s vocal tone and color were as heavenly as the stars in the poem, and his delivery was gentle and emotive. The choir likewise reflected this as they took turns, Kirchner having broken up the stanzas like a call and response between tenors and sopranos, then tutti choir and basses. Lisa Edwards’ dedication to every onset and cadence was written on her face, rounding out the exceptional quality of this audience favorite.
What many folks identify as the hallmark sound of the American spiritual may very well be the choral arrangements by Moses Hogan. Harmonically rich and rhythmically exciting, Hogan’s arrangements give voice to all the layers of emotions we humans need to experience. When one is “sad”, they are also lonely, regretful, comforted, redeemed, and made whole again. We were sated without surfeit by Gershon’s inclusion of Wade in the Water, Abide with Me, and Deep River (one of two encores), all by Hogan.
Jenny Wong, the ensemble’s newly appointed Assistant Conductor, conducted two pieces in the first half, plus one encore piece: Ubi caritas by Paul Mealor. It was the lattermost piece that was particularly spellbinding, and where the energy of the singers was especially unified. Ms. Wong gently fashioned richly tone-clustered phrase after phrase, calming the end of one before proceeding to the next. The audience breathed between phrases, subconsciously following the conductor’s releases. Yet not a stray sound could be heard, and nothing spoiled the enchantment.
The fresh and inspired arrangement of Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing, by composer and Chorale member Zanaida Robles, was the most dramatic arrangement and impassioned performance of the evening. The melody was originally penned during the Harlem Renaissance, and mezzo-soprano soloist, Garineh Avakian, wore the mantle of the song’s drama and dignity perfectly. The ensemble and piano accompaniment provided the contrast of textures to great satisfaction. Robles began the second verse with open fourths and fifths, while the third verse began without tone center at all, propelling a sense of lost direction. The song was brought back onto the clear path towards justice in the fourth and final verse, and the audience responded unequivocally with a standing ovation.
Music is a spiritual experience, after all. This was a celebration of the unity of this experience, across musical eras, continents, and genres.