Lauridsen’s ‘Lux Aeterna’ at 20

By Steven Ottományi, Lister Reviewer

The third in a series of commemorative concerts celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Morten Lauridsen’s seminal work for chorus and orchestra, Lux Aeterna, featured a new offering: Choir Night, with plentiful opportunities for audience participation. Composers Moira Smiley and Eric Whitacre led the assembled singers, gathered from choirs local and distant, including those attending the Chorus America convention, in a pre-concert group sing, performing two works of surprisingly traditional form: Smiley’s Bring Me Little Water, Silvy and Whitacre’s Sleep. Both works employed simple material in interesting ways, prefiguring the music in the concert that followed.

Smiley’s work, characteristically singable and involving percussion and significant body movement, was taught without the benefit of sheet music (the lyrics were projected on a large screen visible to most (though not all) of the hall, and was received with gusto by the participants—at least, by those with a decent short-term memory. Some of the better readers with less ability to memorize may have been left in the dust—surely an interesting turnaround for some choristers!

Whitacre elicited sound and song from the gathered singers in a more traditional manner (each participant was given a copy of the published octavo of Sleep), though the rehearsal was graced by Whitacre’s preternatural talent for working with large crowds over vast distances.

The LAMC’s publicity explained the choice of composers and works for the first half of the concert which preceded the performance of Lux Aeterna: “Artistic Director Grant Gershon has chosen iconic music from some of LA’s most influential composers including Esa-Pekka Salonen, Shawn Kirchner, and commissions of new works by Moira Smiley, Grammy winners Billy Childs and Eric Whitacre to showcase the extraordinary talent in a sonic landscape that was paved by the music of Morten Lauridsen.”

The twentieth anniversary of Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna finds the music as fresh as ever, though the performance transformed under Gershon’s very different sonic paradigm. It’s still very recognizably LAMC, but different enough to draw the longtime listener’s interest. In place of Salamunovich’s dark, lush texture in chorus and orchestra is a lighter, brighter, if more brittle, sound, which showed great effectiveness in the dancing Veni, sancte spiritus.

The a cappella works sung in the first half all found life as commissions for the Los Angeles Master Chorale in the decade following the premiere of Lux Aeterna. Former LA Phil director Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Iri da iri brought a freshness, rhythmic interest, and lightness to an otherwise lyrical concert, matching well with the more rhythmic of the two pre-concert audience sing-alongs, while Moira Smiley’s Time in Our Voices provided fascinating contrast with her earlier work, featuring the recorded voices of children and their families accompanying the choir. LAMC Assistant Conductor Jenny Wong’s direction was supple and sublime, drawing a noticeably different sound and blend from the chorale. We look forward to more of her fine work with the Chorale and others. Billy Childs’ In Gratitude set a rather personal text of gratitude with great skill.

Striking was the amount of music associated with remembrance of the dead—the opening and closing movements of Lux Aeterna are drawn from the Roman Catholic funeral Mass; Whitacre’s new work, an almost unbearably heart-wrenching setting of a text in honor of the poet’s wife and her lost battle with cancer; and the three American hymn settings by Shawn Kirchner, employ texts that explore first the anticipation of death (Heavenly Home), the imminence of death (Angel Band), and the heavenly welcome (Hallelujah).

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