When most of us think of choral music, we think of sounds from a bygone era. While nobody can take away the fact that the composers of such works were geniuses, the enjoyment from such music has largely been hidden from view. Composer and conductor Eric Whitacre, on the other hand, with his charismatic temperament, has swooned music programs across the country to implement his pieces into their curriculums, making it cool to like choral music again.
On December 4th at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, Whitacre, who has started his tenure as the first-ever Artist-in-Residence with the Los Angeles Master Chorale, focused on many liturgical works, some lesser known than others, but all underscored by the positivity emanating from a love of humanity.
It was an otherworldly experience in the breezy 130 minutes that it lasted for, including two encores — “Hallelujah” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” — which had the rapt audience on its feet, proud to sing along and feel empowered by the communal conviviality of 2,265 people standing strong.
In some ways, it was the well-deserved culmination and coronation of Whitacre, who has established himself as an artist of the 21st Century, appealing to not only the older crowd, but the younger demographic with his virtual choir concerts (beginning with “Lux Aurumque”) – comprised of a harmonized mélange of uploaded tributes by his ardent followers from over 110 countries.
The stage for “Christmas with Eric Whitacre” was decorated with lush green potted plants sprouting red leaves, and house lights also arranged to give the ambiance a holiday glow. Standing along a perimeter focused on Whitacre were the 62 astounding a cappella singers — the men, clad in black suits and red ties, and the women, who wore sparkly black blouses with long black skirts. Looking on from the crowd were the Artistic Director of the L.A. Master Chorale (and mentor to Whitacre), Grant Gershon, as well as friendly peers of Whitacre, whose works were to be highlighted on this evening — poet Charles Anthony Silvestri and composer Ariel Quintana.
“Saint-Chappelle” (2013), for instance, spotlighted Whitacre’s friendship with Silvestri, who wrote the Latin text for the piece. It is, as Silvestri explained on stage, a commemoration of the Gothic chapel in Paris, and especially the manner in which the colors forged from light embrace the soul. This occurs from the moment the natural light from the sun becomes lumen via refraction through the stained glass windows, before manifesting as an illumination of angelic exultation that can be basked in inside the sacred building. Needless to say, the music was invigorating as if appointed by a higher source; the men would support the stunning sonorous vocals of the women, and vice versa, creating warm waterfalls of voice that ebbed and flowed.
Another collaboration between Whitacre and Silvestri on melodious display was the “The Chelsea Carol” (2012) – which is aurally tantamount to putting oneself in the place of a divine sword being rekindled and replenished by the clangs of tough love. With Namhee Han on organ, who added a seemingly perfect dissonance to the choir’s heavenly arrows, the waves of beautifully crashing loudness raptured the attendees.
The “Three Christmas Motets” (“Hodie Christus Natus est,” “Ave maris stella,” and “Quem vidistis pastores”) by Quintana were similarly paid tribute to utilizing a mix of choral voices in addition to isolated soprano and mezzo-soprano cadences. It was a medley symbolic of joy and ethereal glistening as a shimmering star would be on a clear winter’s night. And, the pieces were carried out with such poignant precision that Quintana was visibly moved, extending arm-fulls of gratitude to the participants.
Whitacre, who uses eloquently descriptive imagery to explain the workmanship behind his genius, led several of his own individual compositions, too, including “Alleluia,” and “little tree.” Composed during his second year at Juilliard, Whitacre imbued “little tree” with the sound of Americana – gorgeous ranges in volume, juxtaposing baritone and soprano notes, and sung complementarily in counterpoint.
Other fantastic interpretations of hymns covered by Whitacre were “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” by Michael Praetorius, “The Rose” by John Paynter, “Coventry Carol” presumably by Thomas Mawdyke, “O Christmas Tree” arranged by Ken Malucelli & Deke Sharon, “Lully Lulla Lullay” by Philip Stopford, “The Lamb” by John Tavener, and “Once in Royal David’s City” by Henry John Gauntlett.
For several of these songs – which pianist Lisa Edwards contributed to with a bedazzling flair, supplementing the resplendent, textured choral parts – Whitacre made sure to harness the traditional with the aim of artistically challenging it. Just as a novel meaning can be derived from a respected painting, so can even a long-established piece of music be revitalized by virtue of the beholder’s eye – and that is what Whitacre did and has done as he draws inspiration from the past while solidifying his own destiny going forward.
Hence, with already a Grammy Award (for his album “Light and Gold”) and deserved praise as the former Composer-in-Residence at Cambridge University, Whitacre has much to look ahead to as Artist-in-Residence of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, which, among other things, will seek to further engage audiences of choral music in both the real and virtual senses.
For more information about Eric Whitacre, visit ericwhitacre.com
and for additional information about the Los Angeles Master Chorale, visit lamc.org