The following review is based on the September 24th performance.
The Los Angeles Master Chorale is back for another season, which was kick-started on the weekend of September 23-24 with sold-out showings of Carmina Burana featuring approximately 75 orchestra members and over 100 singers at the magnificent Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, CA.
The LA Master Chorale, which is conducted by its vivacious Artistic Director, Grant Gershon, has had an ingenious knack for bringing classical choral music into the modern sphere with a certain panache that infuses new life into older pieces, making them fresh again. This has the effect of satisfying longtime fans, while winning over younger demographics, who would have not otherwise been exposed to significant works of art. The audience on Sunday, September 24th had a large contingent of individuals in their 20s and 30s, which speaks to the growing influence of Los Angeles’ most celebrated chorus.
The first half of the weekend concerts began with a welcome bonus of sorts, before the main-event of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. This was Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms – a composition commissioned in the mid-1960s for the Southern Cathedrals Festival at Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, England – that was written with an empowered conscientiousness amid the political upheaval at the time in the United States (e.g., JFK’s assassination).
Made up of three movements and six psalms, Chichester Psalms has never been delineated with intenser form, underscoring the musical duel of lightness versus darkness, enmity versus beneficence. The voices of female altos and sopranos flowed heartily like windfalls of aural bliss, counterbalanced by the solemnity offered by male bass and tenor voices. Boy soprano Jamie Felix-Toll, of the Wavery School in Pasadena, was spotlighted in between crescendos of vocal falls bestowed by his singing peers. “Surely goodness and merry shall follow me all the days of my life,” sang Felix-Toll, who intermittently stood unassumingly from his chair to effortlessly deliver the reassuring notes.
Bernstein, who would have turned 100 next year, doubtlessly makes suspenseful allusions to the score of West Side Story, and Gershon, who waved his baton with bountiful energy, inspired his musicians and singers to resonantly imbue the air of the concert hall with various colors that could be experienced in the mind’s eye, as a palette of pitches brushed over the audience-comprised canvas, shaping diametrical moods evoking an internal conflict. From the haunting “valley of the shadow of death” to the courageous bellow of keeping evil and the raging nations at bay, violins and cellos rang out like cries of inconsolable agony. Yet, this anger turned into a meditative contemplation, followed by the burgeoning strength to overcome adversity. Loud shrills became blissful tones, and male and female voices danced a beautiful waltz, as we were reminded to “behold how good and pleasant it is.”
And, whether we know Bernstein’s iconic piece or not, the performers played their parts to perfection, captivating us as we sat in the thrall and web of their vocal narrative, unsure of what was to happen next, but sighing a great relief, surely, when tranquillity once again triumphed over terror. If Bernstein is in the heavens watching down, he would have surely smiled upon Gershon and his talented players, who carried out the Harvard-educated maestro’s vision of Chichester Psalms with mellifluous exquisiteness.
After the intermission, Carmina Burana took up the next sixty-plus minutes, rousing the crowd and taking them along Carl Orff’s indelible musical odyssey, which is split into 25 parts, or numbers. It is, moreover, based on 24 of 254 medieval poems in all, penned by a group of irreverent bohemians in the 12th century, which was discovered in a Benedictine monastery in the German municipality of Beuren during the early 19th century. As such, this is how Carmina Burana got its Latin name, which translates to “Songs of Beuren.”
Being that Carmina Burana — especially the subsidiary song “O Fortuna” — is one of the most prolific classical pieces in all of pop culture may have posed a slight challenge for Gershon and the LA Master Chorale, who nevertheless seamlessly rose to the occasion with a masterful interpretation, re-conceptualizing it closer to its roots while dressing it with a favorability for present-day listeners.
This juxtaposition is what Orff may have very well intended when he wrote it in 1936, bookending three evocative mini-stories (I. “Primo Vere,” “Uf Dem Anger;” II. “In Taberna;” III. “Cour d’Amours,” “Blanziflor et Helena”) reminiscent of the serenity of nature, and revelry of human passions, with “Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi” — the mercurial entwinement of fate and fortune — which gloomily introduces and finally laments the intervening themes.
The five sections, which amount to a “scenic cantata,” breathtakingly elicited a stark contrast of palpable and exciting emotions, rife with an eruptive suffusion of voices bolstered by horns and percussion, as the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus joined the LA Master Chorale. The unrelenting and indefatigable momentum of Carmina Burana, often sped up even more so by a feverishly intense tempo, provided for a rapturous intoxication of the senses. Yet, it also had oodles of character, thanks to the three charismatic operatic soloists who starred in the concert.
Stephen Powell, a staple of choruses all over the world, lent his baritone voice and versatility to not only emote the first section’s springtime innocence with his comforting timbre (“The sun warms everything, pure and gentle…”), but to convey an engaging boisterousness and gluttony, as in during the second section, whereby he enjoyed an entertaining interplay with soaring tenor, Nicholas Phan. The two were responsible for one of the highlights of the show because they were as accurate with their bodily portrayals as they were with their voices. Phan sang and acted out the lyrics of the cowering swan, who was summarily turned into dinner (“Misery me! Now black and roasting fiercely”) and eaten by Powell’s persona — which was uproariously depicted by the baritone, who patted his belly and acted tipsy in the midst of compellingly sung bars.
Soprano So Young Park, who has earned quite the local following for herself after consistently stellar performances in LA Opera productions, again showed off her heartbreakingly delicate vibrato during the third section denoting love and the surrender of passion. “The girl without a lover misses out on all pleasures,” echoed Park, whose radiant legato shone through the sound-friendly auditorium like a spotlight refracted into the shape of a beautiful snowflake. Blessed with a vibrato as crisp as the air on a winter’s morning, Park nimbly transitioned between intervals, playing her part vis-à-vis Powell, who pleadingly sang lyrics such as, “Mandaliet, my lover does not come.” This exemplified the push-pull dynamism of romance that was also bandied back and forth in a battle of the sexes among the sea of choral singers.
The “Blanziflor et Helena” section of Carmina Burana culminates with “Hail, light of the world; Hail, rose of the world” before the unilaterally about-face coda of “Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi” resoundingly warns again of an “ever waxing or waning; hateful life.” Shortly thereafter, we make our way through to the denouement of the thrilling voyage, only to learn that the end mirrors the beginning: “Now through the game I bring my bare back to your villainy.” Despite the pall of uncertainty prevailing in Orff’s Carmina Burana, as opposed to Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, we are apt to, at the very least, take a great solace in the cycle of existence that determines our destiny — fortunate or unfortunate.
Gershon, agleam with baton-flitting fervency, and flanked by the virtuoso LA Master Chorale, Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, and soloists, assiduously crafted an intensely cathartic experience for those who attended the Walt Disney Concert Hall on September 23rd and 24th. The word “epic” has a tendency to be treated loosely, and without much care, but the Carmina Burana spectacular was exactly that and much more.
For more information about future events by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, please visit lamasterchorale.org