Music of the spheres at Disney Hall

On Sunday night, fluorescent whirly tubes were an essential part of “Alas de noche” (Nightwings) by Diana Syrse. Photo by Jamie Pham

Starlight, star bright

To the heavens with the Los Angeles Master Chorale

by Bondo Wyszpolski

Well, with one thing and another, I’ve missed attending performances by the L.A. Master Chorale, but I’m grateful to have attended “Choose Something Like a Star” this past Sunday at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Matthew Brown received a standing ovation after the performance of his world premiere work, “Voyager,” presented on Sunday, Feb.12, in the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Photo by Jamie Pham

The program, conducted by Grant Gershon, a man who clearly loves his work, consisted of 14 compositions dating from 1849 to the present: there were two world premieres plus one piece that premiered last season. The good thing here is that one gets exposure to a wide variety of work. The “bad” thing, however, is that one gets exposed to a wide variety of work. And what I mean by that is by the time one returns home it’s likely that one remembers the total effect and not the singular impressions. With exceptions, of course, which I’ll point out.

The program began with “O Beautiful Night,” set to music in 1877 by Johannes Brahms from a poem by Geog Friedrich Daumer. It was a short and pretty straightforward opener that set the tone for the works that followed. “Morning Star” was composed in 2007 by Arvo Pärt, the Estonian composer whose post-1960s music is spiritual and spare. Robert Schumann’s “To the Stars” dates from 1849, the first of a set of four-part songs he composed for double chorus.

The title track of the evening, so to speak, was Randall Thompson’s “Choose Something Like a Star,” composed in 1959 and set to poetry by Robert Frost. The words were fairly simple but at the same time riveting, bringing out the essence of the words, their sound, meaning, and impact. The next piece arrived with some extra poignancy because “Holy is the Lord of Hosts” was penned by the Ukrainian Iryna Aleksiychuk, whose vision was celestial but whose country is today being relentlessly assaulted. As if to underline this work, Gershon followed it with Meredith Monk’s “Earth Seen from Above,” from her 1991 opera “Atlas.” Monk’s work can be challenging, for some it will sound like endless warbling, but this wordless and meditative piece is subtle, even mesmerizing, the volume vital but at times very low, like breathing.

The performance of Matthew Brown’s “Voyager,” with video, conducted by Grant Gershon. Photo by Jamie Pham

The first set ended with “Voyager,” a world premiere by longtime L.A. Master Chorale tenor Matthew Brown. As the program notes put it, this 12-minute work required its four choirs to “articulate various vowel sounds” in addition to “overtones, breath effects, tongue clicks, vocal fry, and other extended techniques throughout.” The piece was inspired by the Voyager space probe that was launched on Sept. 5, 1977. The craft wasn’t expected to survive this long, but even now Voyager is cruising along at 38,000 miles per hour and is currently in the constellation of Ophiuchus. Be that as it may, Brown’s masterful composition is truly riveting in parts, and was accompanied by a video he created that shows the vessel winging past planets and their moons as it journeys out of our solar system. The work deserved, and received, a standing ovation.

Drinking on the job? Having members of the choir blow into glass bottles was one of many striking effects that enhanced Diana Syrse’s “Alas de noche” (Nightwings), which received its world premiere performance this past Sunday at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Photo by Jamie Pham

We returned to our seats in time for another world premiere, “Nightwings” by Diana Syrse, composed both in Mexico and Venice, and especially towards the end evoking the ambient noises of the canals at night. This was accomplished by some singers blowing into various glass bottles while five singers at the front of the stage swirled fluorescent whirly tubes over their heads. Two fans were turned on, providing a distant hum. In short, a piece both clever and moving.

“My Heart Be Brave,” by Marques L.A. Garrett, and “The Promise of Light,” by Georgia Stitt, are both impressive compositions, and they were followed by “The Open Hand” by Michael Abels, who wrote the music for Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” “Us,” and “Nope,” as well as the opera “Omar,” recently presented by LA Opera. Ricky Ian Gordon, also noted for his operatic work, and a great deal more, was represented by “Joy,” part of “Genius Child,” a cycle of 10 songs composed to the poetry of Langston Hughes. Like its title, the piece is short, sweet, and simple.

“I Am Here with You Always” is a heartfelt piece by Nilo Alcala that he set to a poem his mother had written that was to be shared at her wake. Alcala, who was present at the concert, seemed a bit nerdy during the pre-performance talk, but his music put that to rest by being quite touching, to the point that my companion insisted on finding him afterwards to compliment him on his fine accomplishment.

The final presentation was “Spirited Light” by Jake Runestad, which he wrote in 2014, and the music seemed to play with the words, soaring here, plummeting there, and ending with a nice flourish. For the audience, not a sour note all evening. If felt as if one’s soul had been cleansed, the way that the skies are always clear after it rains. I’m trying to hold onto that as long as I can!

Because each program by the Los Angeles Master Chorale is performed only once or twice, if we blink we’ll miss it (unlike, say, the chance to see “Avatar” in theaters). But, briefly, here’s what’s coming up. On Sunday, March 26, at 7 p.m., the Chorale will present a world premiere by Reena Esmail, who weaves together Indian and Western classical music traditions, alongside Gabriel Fauré’s “Requiem in D Minor.” The conductors for that show will be Grant Gershon and Jenny Wong. And then, on Saturday June 10, at 2 p.m. and Sunday, June 11, at 7p.m., they’ll perform Duke Ellington’s “Music from the Sacred Concerts” and Mary Lou Williams’ “Mary Lou’s Mass.” Grant Gershon will conduct, with soloists Carmen Lundy, John Holiday, and Daniel Rich, with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and 80 singers. Both of these sound promising, don’t you think? I certainly do. Tickets start at $45 and performances are in the Walt Disney Concert Hall, across from the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles. (213) 972-7282, or visit ER


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