Revelatory Music and Performances at APU


When Hollywood or perhaps the Westside are not thought of, downtown is the place that many people, mostly the never-ceasing new transplants from elsewhere in the country, think of when they think of “Los Angeles.” The newly revived and self-aware urban center – already the home of such cultural institutions as the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Museum of Contemporary Art – has been wielding the might of its growing cultural gravitational pull over the past decade.

The crowds that gathered on the southbound Gold Line platform at Memorial Park last Sunday afternoon seemed to illustrate the above point. They made telling contrast with those few scattered people waiting across the tracks for the northbound train. For a handful of the northbound passengers their final destination may have been the Azusa Pacific University/Citrus College Station – the end of the line. As they stepped off the train, they may have looked around with curiosity at the bareness of their immediate surroundings: a concrete pathway surrounded by gravel and sagebrush, winding into a parking structure not immediately discernible to the first-time visitor. Within close distance are the rolling San Gabriel Mountains, their patchy greenery still evincing the brief respite from dryness that the rains earlier this month provided.

For the new visitor there is a small yet pleasurable sense of discovery in the walk from the platform to the parking structure, winding down its stairs until reaching the ground floor, then walking up the street shadowed overhead by a bridge that eventually will lead the train into Claremont, until one finally encounters the sprawling facilities of Citrus College. It was a feeling eloquently mirrored in the questing program heard at that school’s Haugh Performing Arts Center that afternoon which had been assembled by the Azusa Pacific University (APU) Symphony Orchestra under its music director, Christopher Russell. APU’s Masterworks Chorale joined the orchestra in the performance of Dvořák’s rarely performed “Te Deum,” which was led by its director, John E. Simons.

There the familiar mingled with the unknown that was still somehow familiar. Echoes of “Fidelio” resounded in Beethoven’s overture to “King Stephan,” one of the neglected stepchildren in the composer’s orchestral output. The uproarious Bohemian joy, at times delicately colored with shades of melancholy, that sets Dvořák’s “Eighth Symphony” glowing alight is heard ringing potently in his “Te Deum.” (Angela Maria Blasi and Ben Lowe were the superb vocal soloists.)

The only wholly unfamiliar work to the audience that afternoon was the meditative and inward-looking “Third Symphony” of Arvo Pärt.

As with his friends and colleagues Tigran Mansurian and Alfred Schnittke, Pärt abandoned the 12-tone method embraced by the Soviet avant-garde of the 1960s, looking instead to the church and the music of the distant past for inspiration. The result is a fascinating score that captures the composer in a moment of transition, edging into the realm of the “holy minimalism” of works like “Fratres,” “Spiegel im Spiegel,” and “Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten” but still a ways from arriving there. The spirit of the Mussorgskian Shostakovich of the 1950s and early 1960s haunts this score, making its presence keenly felt in the symphony’s orchestral coloring and in its extended passages of bare, two-part counterpoint. The dramatic timpani solo bridging the second and third movements is unmistakably a descendent of the one connecting the last two movements and interjecting before the finale’s coda in Shostakovich’s “First Symphony.” (Played with hair-raising power by Erin Duke.)

The greatest discovery of all, though, was the Azusa Pacific University Symphony Orchestra and Masterworks Chorale. It was enough that anybody programmed these obscure (to the general public) and challenging scores. But that they were also able to do so with style and conviction speaks admirably for the work that Russell and Simons have achieved with their respective ensembles. With major symphony orchestras delivering the same, staid old programming with the same, staid old performances season after season, a few would benefit greatly to look past Downtown and, instead, take Azusa Pacific’s example to heart.