LAMC mixes it up with “Handel / Pärt”

It was good to be back at Walt Disney Concert Hall last Sunday, and with a house that looked about 3/4 full, it seems plenty of other folks were glad to be there for the LA Master Chorale, as well.

Starting the concert with “Prayer for Ukraine” by Mykola Lysenko, in a rich and evocative arrangement that brought the audience together almost immediately, it was clear that this evening meant serious business. But with that gravitas came an awful lot of fun.

Dixit Dominus (HWV 232)

George Frideric Handel’s Dixit Dominus is an early work (1707), written even before his opera Agrippina, which helped to define him as a major composer. Like early Mozart, you can hear the influence of formative time spent in Italy, and there is a brightness and vivacity to this work that is infectious and simply joyful. Generally short solo sections were handled skillfully by several members of the Chorale, with soprano Anna Schubert the clear standout, but all performing very well.

Schubert’s voluptuous sound is somehow also effortless and full of sparkle, like a songbird doing what they were meant to do. Mezzo Callista Hoffman-Campbell’s supple voice is honed and well controlled; tenor Adam Faruqi showed a bright, youthful sound that was perfect for the piece, and Chung Uk Lee, who is always impressive, served up an authoritative and compelling bass. Elissa Johnston was also superb, especially during the duet with Ms. Schubert, the interplay nicely balanced between two quite different sopranos.

Conductor Grant Gershon, full of the headiness and joy in music that he is so known for, led the choruses at a good clip, but both the Chorale and the orchestra were right with him, bringing Handel into 21st sound while still being impressively believable in style. The finale, “Gloria Patri et Filio”, was especially loaded with fireworks, with the altos’ commanding tone standing firm amid almost chaotic floridity on all sides. Gershon is uncommonly good with pieces like this: they dance, and he’s right there, making it fun for performers and audiences alike.

Te Deum

Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum is one of the composer’s most striking examples of what he calls tintinnabuli, a structural technique that places harmonic focus on the weaving of lines rather than the more familiar construct of melody plus chords. The instrumentation and choral architecture are unusual as well, and Walt Disney Concert Hall provided an impressive framework for that drama. Scored for three choirs (women, men and mixed), prepared piano, string orchestra and wind harp (provided via laptop), the men’s and women’s choirs were perched at the top of the hall, in the highest balcony behind the stage, on either side of the organ. This was an interesting experiment, as the hall’s extraordinary acoustics have such a homogenizing effect that attempts at antiphony are often somewhat blunted. But with the otherworldly drone of the recorded wind harp, the occasional, percussive twang of selected piano strings clamped with metal screws, and the general atmosphere of chant, incense and skilled choral singing, the overall effect was still earthy, primal and rewarding.

The basses seemed to be working overtime, grounding the duality of lighter, bright colors with their own sublime depth. The vocal lines were enthralling, bouncing back and forth and tumbling over one another, and then separating again. This haunting, meditative work shows off WDCH’s acoustic in high style, as we could hear clear tones waft but stay surprisingly close.

Notes

Pärt is a composer who thinks deeply about his work, and has much to say on the matter. For this reason, presenters often include extensive program notes to explain the music and how it was built. LAMC did this as well, as expected, but it gives us a chance to offer a shout-out to Thomas May, who has been writing the bulk of their notes for many years now. The writer of program notes holds a strange role in the musical experience, as they provide necessary context for what we are to hear, but are often also tasked with telling us what to think about it. In addition, some spend considerably time simply showing off their own knowledge, which can be a terrifying bore. Mr. May is a gem among note-writers, consistently providing knowledgable and relevant context for a broad spectrum of artistic works, but he is rarely boring and his own love of these works shines through. We owe him thanks for playing his role well and enriching our understanding of these and so many other works over the years.

Summing up

The LA Master Chorale is one of the world’s most respected choirs for a reason. While I often struggle with Handel and tend to wax overly rhapsodic about Pärt, they gave us an exuberant and thoughtful adventure this evening. Thanks, all.


Featured image provided by LA Master Chorale, from a previous event. Photo by Jamie Pham.

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