Morten Lauridsen joins the Joanna Medawar Nachef Singers on Sunday
When the Heavens Open, the Music Begins
The Joanna Medawar Nachef Singers have a very special guest
Morten Lauridsen is a man whose reputation precedes him. His “Lux Aeterna” is an undisputed choral masterpiece, his compositions have been performed worldwide and recorded on over 200 albums, and in 2007 President George W. Bush conferred upon him the prestigious National Medal of Arts.
Joanna Medawar Nachef, for many years the conductor of Los Cancioñeros Master Chorale, has since 2015 been heading up her own newly-established group, the Joanna Medawar Nachef Singers. She’s a woman of passion and indefatigable energy, and late last year she decided that her chorale would perform an all-Lauridsen concert.
In a month or so, Lauridsen will wrap up 50 years as a music instructor at USC. That sounds like a recipe for retirement, but Lauridsen is still relatively young, just 74, and I think some of his best work may still lie ahead. But let’s go back to Medawar Nachef, who first met him in the early 1980s when she was attending USC for her Master and Doctorate degrees.
Ever learning and improving
Medawar Nachef has been prominent locally for a good 20-plus years. In addition to leading a respected choral ensemble she’s been a mainstay in the music department at El Camino College, and every year has led concerts comprised of talented and aspiring singers.
She’s also encountered Lauridsen, and certainly his work, many times since her days at USC. She’s taken her groups or her students to dozens of conferences or events and pieces like “Lux Aeterna” and “Dirait-on” would often appear somewhere on the program.
“The most amazing thing is,” Medawar Nachef says as we sit in her office at El Camino, “when I travel the world people ask about Morten Lauridsen. They’ve heard his music and are moved by his music.”
Lauridsen is a very busy man, constantly in demand, constantly on the move. He’s done over 100 residences at colleges and universities around the country and overseas. But Medawar Nachef asked him if he might be available to participate in her upcoming concert. The maestro needed to check his schedule, of course, and then found that the window of opportunity was open.
“What a privilege,” Medawar Nachef says, and it’s the reason she asked if I might write about the concert in advance. “That’s why I thought it would be nice for our community and the South Bay to know this gem, and this great person who has changed in many ways the face of choral music, and who is willing to be in our community and give so much of his time.”
The Joanna Medawar Nachef Singers consists of 32 men and women, 22 of whom were former students at El Camino.
Before speaking with her, I briefly looked in on one of her rehearsals.
So, some of these students I saw rehearsing may one day…
“Absolutely,” Medawar Nachef replies. “In fact, that’s what I feel so pleased about, that I could see that journey for them; and then give them the opportunity to see where they could be.”
Not surprisingly, she has an eye, and of course an ear, for noticing any student “who’s got that special drive” to work hard and persist. “I was discovered that way in this classroom by Jane Hardester. She looked at me and said, ‘’You got that talent.’ And she said, ‘Young lady, where do you come from?’ I was new from Lebanon; I looked so scared, I think, and perplexed. And she said, ‘Don’t look so scared, you have a natural talent to be a conductor.’”
Those who remember Jane Hardester (she taught at El Camino from 1962 to 1990) know how vital she was to the music community. And just as she inspired her young Lebanese student, that former Lebanese-student-now-choral-director wants to inspire others.
“I want to help them to realize their dreams. But I tell them, the most important thing you need to keep in mind [is that] it’s sheer hard work. Stamina. Discipline. And here I am, at my level in my career, and I am stretching myself and challenging myself to do what? To bring the composer to my concert and have him sit there and listen to his work being produced by me. And like I tell my students, I am shaking in my stilettos!
“But I’m doing that because I want to grow. I want to improve what I already know. I’m constantly eager to learn, and to learn under the finest hands of a composer; to see what he’s going to do to improve my group, and then help me convey his message through his beautiful music.”
Lauridsen and Salamunovich
And then, a day or so later, I’m on the phone with Morten Lauridsen himself, a composer I’ve known about for years, especially through his intimate connection with the Los Angeles Master Chorale, which has not only featured his work (and many times), but under the leadership of Paul Salamunovich recorded a Grammy-nominated album (“Lux Aeterna”) back in 1998.
(Let me just note here that Salamunovich was born in Redondo Beach, in 1927)
Those initial concerts were performed in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion long before Disney Hall was built (although an all-Lauridsen program was presented in the latter venue only three years ago). That goes back to the days of the L.A. Master Chorale with Roger Wagner, when the “Mid-Winter Songs” were part of the program in 1985, and afterwards in 1990 with Wagner’s successor, John Currie, at the helm. Later, in 1994, Lauridsen became the Master Chorale’s composer-in-residence, and the first piece he wrote for them was the much-acclaimed “O Magnum Mysterium.”
His residency at that time was when Paul Salamunovich, presumably one of the key people in Lauridsen’s life and career, was leading the chorale.
“I met with Paul virtually most Mondays for a period of six years,” he says. “His home was in North Hollywood and I would go over there and I would say, ‘Paul, this is what I’m writing,’ and he would see it in progress. Or we’d be preparing other works of mine that he conducted–the ‘Rose’ cycle (“Les Chansons des Roses,” based on poems by Rilke), the ‘Mid-Winter Songs’ (Robert Graves), the ‘Madrigali,’ and of course we premiered the ‘Ave Maria’ and the ‘Lux Aeterna,’ and ‘O Magnum Mysterium.’
“I saw my role as composer-in-residence for them to write to the conductor’s strength,” Lauridsen continues. “Here you have a man who for 60 years had a job as choral master in the Catholic Church (St. Charles Borromeo Church) in North Hollywood and was a world’s expert on Gregorian chant and the Latin liturgy, and so I chose these texts and chose the approach that I did musically for his expertise areas. With a different conductor it would have been a very different kind of music. It was a wonderful relationship.” He pauses. “Oh my goodness, I miss him terribly.”
Time passes, as it tends to do whether we’re looking or not, and three years ago Paul Salamunovich passed away. He’d been in a coma for several months after having been bitten by a mosquito that carried the West Nile virus.
“And not responsive at all,” Lauridsen says, “until I went to see him.”
“I had come down from the island (Waldron, north of Seattle, where he lives part of each year). He was in St. Joseph’s Hospital at the time. So I walk in, his wife is there, and the head nurse, and he was (connected) with all the tubes and everything else. I simply went up to him, right up to his ear, and I said, ‘Paul, wake up, get well, your composer is here. I want you to get well; let’s go back on stage again and you conduct ‘O Magnum Mysterium’ and the ‘Lux Aeterna.’
“And his right hand goes up, and he starts waving it. He’s completely in a coma, but each time I would say those words the right hand would go up and he would be indicating, conducting, in a motion.
“The nurse said, ‘What’s going on?’ and I said, ‘Well, he’s conducting my music.’” Lauridsen laughs softly as he recounts this memory. “‘That’s what’s going on.’ Isn’t that wonderful? It registered so deep. That’s the only time he’d moved at all during that time…”
“Anyway,” Lauridsen says, as if having mused aloud for my benefit, “I loved the man and I absolutely picture him conducting choirs of angels at this very time.”
Silence is golden
Waldron, mentioned above, is part of the San Juan Islands archipelago at the northwest tip of Washington state. Many years ago, Lauridsen bought an old shack, a former general store built in the early 1900s. With his carpentry skills he turned it into what seems both a workspace and a a sanctuary.
“It’s still very rustic, no running water, no electricity,” he says, conjuring up for this writer a picture of Thoreau living at Walden Pond. “I wrote much of this music on a $50 spinet piano by candlelight in this shack.”
Yes, he does find time to write while teaching at USC, and he points out how appreciative he is of the school for being supportive of his creative endeavors.
“But I do my best work in seclusion,” Lauridsen says, “and this is why I go up to this island in the summertime, where it’s the silence. Silence is very, very important to me because I can go down very, very deeply, where you’re being yourself. I learned that, as a kid, all those years ago when I had a fabulous experience of ten weeks on a (fire) lookout alone, up in the wilds of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest (near Mount St. Helens), working for the forest service.
“I had ten weeks up there,” he repeats, “and I sorted out things in my life at that time, including going into music as a major.” His first year at Whitman College, he hadn’t taken any music courses, but when he returned to school that was his new focus.
On Lauridsen’s website there’s a quote taken from Nick Strimple’s book, “Choral Music in the Twentieth Century,” in which the author says of the composer that he’s “the only American composer in history who can be described as a mystic.”
That’s quite a statement, actually, and one that might flatter as well as alarm the recipient of it. Lauridsen certainly acknowledges the comment, but also tempers its significance.
“I think what he’s talking about is the fact that the ‘Lux Aeterna’ and I think a number of the other works, too, are transformative works for their listeners. That’s probably the root of that comment, but I hear it from a lot of people.”
Proof of this, if any is needed, is evident in Michael Stillwater’s 2012 documentary, “Shining Night: A Portrait of Composer Morten Lauridsen,” and parts of it can be found online. Stillwater’s newest film, which also includes Lauridsen, poses the question to some 50 people of a spiritual bent: “What is the Great Song for you?”
That song, if it exists for us, may be a little harder to find and connect with than before. Lauridsen points out that many young people today are “hammered in every way by constant diversions, cell phones, the internet, and all that. And that takes them away from themselves. So, in all my talks, I talk about the importance of finding a place of silence so you can get reconnected with yourself.”
And perhaps Lauridsen’s music reminds us of the need, of the necessity, to do just that.
Years ago, when he was on Scott Simon’s NPR program, and they were listening to “Lux Aeterna,” Lauridsen was asked what it is in the music that goes so deeply inside of us. “I don’t know,” he replied. “I can point to the technical aspects of it… We try as artists to go to a place that’s quite beyond words; it can’t be explained.”
I imagine that if we could aptly describe a sublime experience then we wouldn’t need that sublime experience. But Lauridsen’s music taps into many essential emotions. If we detect a sense of hope, that’s because we’ve known despair; and if we sense joy, that’s because we’ve known sorrow. I think it’s quite easy to be soothed by his music, to feel in it something holy and sacred. But it’s also like a candle that we gaze into and that gently mirrors back our thoughts and emotions.
We’ve seen that Lauridsen has created song cycles based on the poetry of Graves and Rilke and others, most notably, recently, his “Prayer (On a Poem by Dana Gioia),” which the poet wrote in memory of his young son who died of SIDS. It’s a lovely piece, which Medawar Nachef’s group will also perform.
Lauridsen reads poetry every day. “I started all my classes from all these decades with a poem,” he says. “As you know, it just takes us up a peg. We learn so much from poets, in so many ways, and my life has been enriched. And so I’ve focused all these years on combining my great loves of music, poetry, and the most personal of all instruments, the human voice.”
The Fates have been good to him, and he knows it.
“I’m a very fortunate man. For the most part of my life, I work very quietly, just doing the job, trying to write music that could connect with people, [based] on the very best texts that I could find on universal themes. Then all of a sudden in the ‘90s the combination of things, with writing pieces that became extremely well known, that fabulous Grammy-nominated recording by the L.A. Master Chorale, my appointment as their composer-in-residence; all this happened when I hit 50.”
After Medawar Nachef contacted him about participating, Lauridsen wrote back to her: “I’ll try and make it happen, I like what you’re doing.” And now it is happening.
“She’s chosen works that are very close to my heart,” Lauridsen says, “that I think the audience will enjoy as well.”
The Joanna Medawar Nachef Singers present Morten Lauridsen’s “Lux Aeterna” on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. (with a pre-concert talk at 6:30) in the Norris Theatre, 27570 Norris Center Drive, Rolling Hills Estates. The second half of the program includes “O Magnum Mysterium,” “Sure on This Shining Night,” and “Dirait-on.” And, yes, the composer will speak beforehand, perform, and meet with patrons after the concert. Tickets, $40, $30, $20, plus $5 service charge. (310) 544-0403 or go to palosverdesperformingarts.com. ER