By Ted AYALA
If the mood of the Los Angeles Master Chorale (LAMC) at its Disney Hall season premiere on Sunday was electric, it had ample reason to be. Opening its 49th season, not to mention its 12th under the charismatic leadership of Grant Gershon, the ensemble has further polished the legacy of its former director Paul Salamunovich. The suave unity of their voices, their pliant expressiveness, and vibrant color put the LAMC among elite company in the choral world.
It was a moment to celebrate then, not with solemnity but with a rousing, earthy shout. The Organ Extravaganza did just that, pulling out all the stops – both figuratively and literally.
The brilliant “God is Gone Up” from the Three Anthems, Op. 27 by the tragically short-lived Gerald Finzi, opened the program. The joyous devotion of the music belied the composer’s agnostic worldview and the Hodgkin’s disease to which he would ultimately succumb – diagnosed while working on the score.
Attracting the attention of many were the pair of works by classical music golden boy Nico Muhly. Coming hard on the heels of a Los Angeles Philharmonic Green Umbrella concert focusing on the work of the composer – with music that failed to live up to the 30-year-old’s glowing reputation and hype – the LAMC program saw the composer in better, if still mixed, light. Best of all was his “Bright Mass with Canons” (canons as in Pachelbel, not 1812), a vibrant work equal parts New York minimalism and Francis Poulenc. The organ part, played brilliantly by Kimo Smith, quivered nervously underneath the tapestry of quasi-Baroque grandeur, producing sounds not unlike the kind heard from an eight-bit video game. Less successful was the West Coast premiere of Muhly’s “A Good Understanding,” a meandering work done in by the sort of slack-jawed, navel-gazing aesthetic that scuttled the works on the Green Umbrella program.
Another dud was Tarik O’Regan’s “Dorchester Canticles,” composed for an ensemble comprising the same combination used by Leonard Bernstein in the reduction of his “Chichester Psalms.” While the music was of a completely different sort, comparisons to the Bernstein piece were inevitable. It didn’t help that the composer, according to the program notes, conceived the work as a “complement” to the “Chichester Psalms.” If so, then O’Regan’s work only helps highlight the genius of the Bernstein work (one of the composer’s truly great compositions) – at the expense of casting the spotlight on its own vapidity and inanity.
Following a similar path was Paul Mealor’s “Ubi Caritas.” Composed for last year’s British royal wedding, its cloying, saccharine expression seemed well suited for that occasion, but perhaps not so much under more sober conditions.
Arvo Pärt’s meditative “The Beatitudes” was also not as fine as one would expect from this composer. Its repetitive, stepwise progressions quickly wore out their welcome, though the closing organ solo was more interesting and rewarding to listen to than the rest of the work that preceded it.
Closing out the program was Judith Weir’s “Ascending Into Heaven, ” another curiously pallid composition that one wish had been traded out for something more rewarding.
That impression of the Weir piece was magnified by its being cruelly juxtaposed with the miniature masterpiece of Kurt Weill’s “Kiddush,” which had immediately preceded it. Its softly undulating harmonies, tipping its hat both to the synagogue and to Broadway, made a deep impression. The piece’s tenor solo was performed with rapt expressivity by Daniel Chaney, who sculpted the piece into a miniature aria. An appropriate interpretation given the composer’s own roots in the theatre.
Throughout, the LAMC was its ever-superb self. The status as a musical institution that Los Angeles can take pride in – and the rest of the world can envy – was again proved beyond doubt.