Review: LA Master Chorale launches season at full throttle with Mozart and Kirchner pairing

It was another sold-out evening on September 23rd, and the excitement was palpable. Even on the Los Angeles Master Chorale‘s second night of the season, it felt like a gala or the night of a grand premiere. But the massive crowd settled into their seats at some length, and after a quick and gregarious intro by artistic director Grant Gershon, we were off.

Songs of Ascent

Like slipping on a favorite soft sweater, the piece opens with such warmth and immediate flow of emotion that this musical comfort food shows a startling accessibility. This is the surprise of Shawn Kirchner‘s music:  his is deceptive, straightforward language, but his compositions have been so intricately crafted that they never lack complexity. It was a pleasure to hear the premiere of Songs of Ascent in 2015, and the second experience was far better. The presentation seemed more well-defined, and the choir more committed.  As my concert buddy put it, “this is music people will be listening to in a hundred years”, and I’m prone to agree.

The strings-only orchestration, with such appealing, genuine lyricism in the score, might have been in danger of ending up cloyingly sweet. But Kirchner makes deft use of the strings’ full range of dynamic power, from swirling hymns of ecstatic joy to gentle, contemplative pianissimos, and Gershon and the orchestra made the most of the fire in this work’s belly.

Rod Gilfry, truly one of LA’s own golden boys, is internationally known for his appearances on the opera stage, but he seems now to be appearing in more concerts and recitals, as well as teaching delighted and promising students at USC, with much success.  His tone is clear, with a vibrato that is charming and even.  Gilfry’s declamation, as usual, shows an ability to communicate with an audience like few others.  These skills are as unhindered in concert as on the stage.

Liv Redpath‘s calm and lyrical soprano was light as air. The performance was not flawless, but it was without fault.  Her voice is real and alive, making it, and her interpretation, fascinating.

Robert Norman‘s tenor voice gets richer every year, with more dramatic power than he usually gets to show off in the hilarity of his comic stage roles. It was wonderful to see him in this guise, where his voice could really shine on its own.

Abdiel Gonzalez‘s baritone was slightly less consistent than we’re used to hearing from this stunning artist. But there was no loss of intensity, nevertheless.  His magnetic presence paired exceptionally well with Mr. Norman’s, for a duet that lit a fire under Psalm 129, “Many a time they have afflicted me”.  Indeed, Mr. Norman and Mr. Gonzalez were a powerful presence throughout the piece.  Even standing still, as they did in later movements, they were themselves fully engaged, and therefore commanded serious attention.

As for the choir, LAMC is one of the best in the world for many reasons, one certainly being their consistent ability to create one-voiced sound that is both precise and alive, completely avoiding the soulless perfection that has brought other groups fame. LAMC is the embodiment of what true skill can do, and proof that “choiring” is about far more than just staying together and singing in tune. Each section is extraordinary, and their teamwork so collaborative that it seems impossible for a mob of one hundred singers.

The women shone distinctly in Psalm 120’s “In my distress I cried unto the Lord”, and especially the altos, whose supple sound rooted this cry for peace and lent the moment additional gravitas without sounding heavy or weighed-down. As the basses and tenors took their entrances in the eighth movement, Psalm 130’s “Out of the depths”, the interplay between sections and with the orchestra was particularly stunning, and was then shadowed by the women’s voices in a modern fugue.  This is the most organically powerful section of this fine work, and possibly the most extractable — the movement would stand well on its own. It rivals the power of any of the choral “chestnuts” that are sung over and over again in churches and sacred concerts, and would be a welcome replacement for most of them.

Likewise, the following setting of Psalm 121, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills”, is well-crafted and shows Kirchner’s penchant and instinct for playing choral colors against one another until they meld into a singular, glorious whole.  While the orchestra here is a welcome addition, the instruments are almost superfluous in this moment (sorry, guys), in the midst of so much supremely engaging vocal sound. But Gershon’s sensitivity to balance and “big picture” musicmaking brought it all together elegantly. Finishing off with hopeful exuberance and a flourish from the harp gave this masterwork a spectacular finish, with at least half the crowd leaping to their feet in well-deserved enthusiasm.  As usual, no one got as big an ovation as the choir.

Moving voices

As with several otherwise “traditional” programs, Gershon’s willingness to move soloists about the stage space in Songs of Ascent works surprisingly well, and sidesteps the dreaded “park and bark” dilemma that crops up so often in concert (and too often in stage works).  Gershon’s sense of “production” in his programming avoids both the boredom of yet another static choir concert, or worse, the dreaded show-choir antics that some groups resort to in order to stand out.  LAMC’s approach is thankfully more subtle, and is far more effective. Seeing soloists walking around between movements, or stationed in surprising locations, could seem like a series of innocuous or even frivolous whims. But instead, it denotes a serious commitment to audience experience, and introduces a sort of mysterious quality to the evening.  As one nearby concertogoer put it, that sense of “What on earth are they doing?  Oh, now I get it” is powerful, and over time, LAMC is changing the relationship their audience has with choral music. Their audiences are downright fervent in their regard for these concerts and this organization, not out of blind devotion, but because this passionate community of choral buffs regularly experiences the fully activated drama that lies within this great music. And a big bravo to that.

Mozart’s Requiem

This is one of the best loved classical compositions in history, which means it is performed so often that any outing might be “phoned-in” and mired in familiarity, or could stray the other way, remaining too careful and committed to the composer’s presumed intent to allow for the free expression of an awe-inspiring score.  But there were no such problems here.

Gershon’s brisk tempo at the top was refreshing, allowing the work its own vitality by avoiding the commonly dirgelike opening and reveling in Mozart’s signature lightness of foot. Later on, his “Salva me” was slower than many, but with purpose. This masterpiece shows the range of the maestro’s interpretation, as well as the choir’s sublime flexibility and focus. Mozart’s Requiem has something for everyone: operatic drama, ecclesiastical and emotional power, florid fugues, shining high notes, and lows that quake in the floorboards. But this conductor lets no work rest on its laurels.  Masterful conducting crafted familiar sound into meaningful art.

The soloists were again stationed between the orchestra and the choir, which has caused some issues in previous concerts.  But this evening, it really worked, with no significant problem hearing the quartet. These four principal voices were very well matched, handing off lines seamlessly and communicating beautifully with one another as well as with the audience.  The four voices have quite different timbres, but were remarkably simpatico when they came together.

Grant Gershon with LAMC soloists for 2018's Mozart 'Requiem'
L to R: Rod Gilfry, Grant Gershon, J’nai Bridges, Liv Redpath, David Portillo

Mr. Gilfry, returning after the intermission to take the lead in this second half, was in his element, notably in the “Benedictus”, almost at the end, which was thrilling, with the strength of a true storyteller. David Portillo‘s instrument is exquisite, the kind of tenor people don’t want to shut up about.  He is a bona fide star. Mezzo J’nai Bridges, always a favorite, has a warm and profoundly satisfying sound that has grown into broad power, but with the good taste that stops short of onslaught.  Ms. Redpath was born to sing this piece, and did so with shimmering radiance. All four performed solidly throughout, but really gelled together at the end.

Watching Gershon conduct this beloved work is a masterclass in restraint and timing at the podium.  Grant is known for conducting with his entire body, but more delicate passages can be led with the same surety, and an equally dramatic effect, with very slight gestures and the same specificity of intent.  He explored every point in this spectrum during the Mozart, and the nearly perfect “Lacrymosa” was a prime example of his deep connection with not only a work of this power and scope, but with all of his performers.  It was a privilege to witness such a symbiotic exchange, which cannot be manufactured or faked.

LA Master Chorale’s next concert is on November 18, also at Walt Disney Concert Hall, performing J.S. Bach’s Magnificat and the West Coast premiere of Reena Esmail‘s This Love Between Us, which was specifically composed to pair with the Bach masterwork.  Can’t wait.

All photos by Patrick Brown, courtesy of the Los Angeles Master Chorale


Sources of potential bias:  (Sort of like a chemist’s “sources of error”)

This blog is unusual, as most of our reviewers are also performers themselves. While we have never hidden this fact, our editors have decided to make obvious connections more clear going forward. Lauri is a former member of the LA Master Chorale, performing with them no more recently than a decade ago. As always, this review has been prepared with as honest and straightforward a perspective as possible. Some concerts are just that good.

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