LAMC BRINGS PEACE AND JOY TO DISNEY HALL
Los Angeles Master Chorale’s (LAMC) Christmastime Baroque concert, Rejoice!, had as its headliner Bach’s Magnificat, but less-than-stellar soloists for this work – one which is better-suited for an intimate venue – made the piece more fascinating as a musical study than triumphant as a performance. Still, under the leadership of Grant Gershon, the world-renown chorale was dazzlingly magical and the chamber orchestra was superb; combined with far-superior solo work, it was the Baroque companion piece, Vivaldi’s Gloria, which was no less than resplendent.
For those who are wondering, Magnificat is not a Saturday morning cartoon super-hero feline. Also known as “The Song of Mary,” Magnificat (pronounced mahg-nif-i-kaht) is the hymn of the Virgin Mary (one of the eight most ancient Christian hymns) taken directly from the Gospel of Luke, beginning “My soul doth magnify the Lord.” This is Mary’s response to her cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with the future John the Baptist, after Elizabeth praises the faith of the equally pregnant Mary. While it is normally used as a canticle – or song of praise – during evening prayers (vespers), the text can be applied to a musical setting, one which is also called, simply, Magnificat.
Since the Renaissance, many classical composers, from Rachmaninoff to Arvo Pärt have either composed a Magnificat as a stand-alone work or a portion of a larger work. In the nascent Baroque period, Monteverdi wrote a Magnificat to conclude his Vespers of 1610, which the LAMC executed with world-class precision a month ago. Rejoice!, which opened with a Bach motet and Gloria, concluded with the most famous Magnificat of all, composed by Bach in 1723 for Christmas Vespers in Leipzig.
Bach would later revise his work from E-flat to D major, eliminating the Christmas texts for non-Christmas high feasts. While this altered version is the one most commonly produced, Mr. Gershon interpolated the four Christmas movements back into the Magnificat. One of these texts, “Virga Jesse floruit,” was so lovely that its removal for any reason seems strange. Yes, Bach wrote this in a world dominated by the church, but to a non-religious listener, eliminating the Christmas texts makes as much sense as excising “We Need a Little Christmas” from Mame because it’s a summer stock production.
For those who are familiar with church music prior to the Renaissance – which can be melancholic, dreary, and long – Bach’s work is a revelation. Not only does it include his trademark mathematical genius and fugue work, but it is eternally cheerful and fairly short, containing 16 movements which clock in at about a half hour. The Chorale magnified these qualities with an exuberance that grabbed our attention from the start. Especially thrilling was the moment early on when the glorious soprano Risa Larson transported us with her powerful strains in the lush aria “Quia respexit” only to be followed by the chorus of 48 (including soloists) erupting into “Omnes generations,” which clearly excited Gershon, who fervently pulled at each section as their parts kept stacking one on top of the other.
The soloists were not always as strong as they needed to be for this large hall. Both Soprano Harriet Fraser and Tenor Brandon Hynum no doubt sing exquisitely, but they lacked power. Baritone Steve Pence, who also needed profundity, did show especially impressive vocal control during “Virga jesse floruit.” Next to Ms. Larson, the most outstanding vocalist was Mezzo Soprano Niké St. Clair, who combined strength with a bounciness that was infectious.
The trumpet parts are high, showy, and complicated – typical of Baroque music. As such, skilled trumpeters were highly valued in the Baroque era, and composers often wrote with a particular musician in mind. In the orchestra for this performance was trumpeter David Washburn (principal for Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra); his astonishingly clean work makes clear why he is one of the most sought-after trumpeters in town. Also doing fine work in this section were Andrew Ulyate and Kevin Brown.
The unamplified acoustics at Disney Hall produce astounding results when a full orchestra is performing, but a smaller-sized chorale with a chamber orchestra, for all of their perfection, tend to sound diminished in parts. Therefore, even Magnificat – with its luxurious Baroque harmonies, intricate and extravagant musical ornamentation, and luminously interlaced counterpoint – loses some of its impact, making me wonder how this would have sounded in a location for which it was written, namely a church.
While the Magnificat was not the highlight of the program, another bit of Bach, Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden, one of six surviving Bach motets, opened the evening with resounding success. To call this piece for four-part choir and continuo a fugal delight is an understatement: The first section has a double fugue, the middle section has a predominating melody followed by more fugal writing, and the concluding “Alleluia” has a triple fugue, which is a fugue with a subject and two countersubjects developed simultaneously. The work is notoriously difficult, but the singers were so accomplished and confident in voice that they allowed their bodies to sway and lurch with spirit.
Antonio Lucio Vivaldi composed Gloria (RV 589) for a hospital for orphans, one which more likely was a home for the illegitimate daughters of Venetian patricians and their paramours. Because the Ospedale della Pietà was liberally endowed by the girls’ unspecified fathers, the quality of music education made for an outstanding orchestra and choir (this also may explain why the girls performed from behind screened-off galleries). (If you attended the pre-concert lecture with Mr. Gershon and KUSC Host Alan Chapman, you would have also learned that there is a Vivaldi potato, so-called because it is cultivated in all four seasons.)
As is true with most of Vivaldi’s work, Gloria is instantly accessible and entirely appealing. It is also an exhibition of opposites in temperament – animated/contemplative, elated/subdued, lively/stately, and affectionate/theatrical. This was one of LAMC’s best performances, resulting in a seamless balance of chorus, orchestra, and soloists, all of whom captured these moods with contagious joy.
The third movement, the joyful duet “Laudamus te,” showcased the lovely work of Sopranos Deborah Mayhan and Ayana Haviv as they floridly intertwined on the vigorous and lively melodic lines. Another highlight was Mezzo Soprano Janelle DeStefano’s soaring strength and expressiveness during “Domine Deus, Agnus Dei”; her register was perfect for this movement. Also amazing was the way in which a voice, cello, and keyboard could so sumptuously fill Disney Hall. It’s quite a feat when a Christmas concert actually conjures up sensations of peace and joy.
Los Angeles Master Chorale: Rejoice!
Walt Disney Concert Hall
played December 16, 2012
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