MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

LA Master Chorale: Today, Tomorrow, and Beyond


I’ve always admired the vision behind the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Tomorrow they conclude their landmark 50th-anniversary season. In characteristic fashion, Grant Gershon and the Master Chorale have chosen to celebrate by filling the entire program with contemporary music: new pieces by David Lang, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Gabriela Lena Frank, Francisco Núñez, and their own resident composer, Shawn Kirchner. They commissioned all five selections, most of which are world premieres.

Here is my note for Esa-Pekka Salonen’s setting of the final lines from Dante’s Divine Comedy, one of the works receiving its world premiere:

Tonight brings the birth of the latest composition from Salonen. “I wasn’t a chorister growing up in Finland,” he says, “but was an instrumentalist from early on. I came to choral music later.” Iri da iri is Salonen’s second work for a cappella chorus, following a setting of the poetry of the contemporary Finnish writer Ann Jäderlund (Two Songs from Kalender Röd from 2000). He approached the commission to write Iri da iri as a special occasion that “is very personal for me – more so than usual.”

Salonen has enjoyed a long-term friendship with Grant Gershon, having been impressed by his gifts early on in his tenure with the LA Phil in the 1990s, when he first became aware of Gershon. “I realized then that he is extraordinarily talented,” remarks Salonen, adding that he found it deeply touching to be commissioned to write a piece directly by the singers of the Master Chorale.

It’s been argued that the apocalyptic torments of hell are more inspiring for an artist than visions of paradise – the meme that “happiness writes white” – and that bias probably explains why Dante’s Paradiso has tended to get short shrift in comparison with his Inferno and Purgatorio.

Yet Salonen found the very last section of this third and concluding part of Dante’s epochal Divine Comedy fascinating both in its poetic structure and in its representation of a singular vision that transcends any particular religion, taking on a universal perspective instead.

“It goes beyond the religious,” explains Salonen. “After the poet has met the top management of heaven and comes to the innermost circle of the cosmos, at that point the expression somehow changes. The word ‘god’ isn’t even mentioned anymore, and it goes beyond the personal. At the end Dante has to admit that the only thing he knows is that love is what makes all of this – the planets and stars, the whole cosmos – work.”

Salonen was also attracted by Dante’s command of meter and the interlocking rhyming structure of his three-line stanzas (terza rima). “It works very well in music because it allows you to build chain-like forms” instead of proceeding in a “simple linear way.” He points out that because Dante’s images are so “mystical and complex” he decided not to try to illustrate the text musically (the age-old device of “madrigalism”).

Salonen wanted the words being sung to be understandable and therefore for the most part follows the natural rhythms as they would be spoken in Italian. At the same time, “there are a couple sections where the text dissolves into atoms,” evoking for him images of “planets and nebulae” and suggesting a sense of “cosmic movement.”

The result is that Salonen’s musical setting of Iri da iri involves “a kind of dualism between using the language as a tool for communication and using it in some cases as material. Sometimes the music moves rather rhythmically and in a more songlike, linear way but there are more densely contrapuntal moments when it follows the laws of the cosmos, as it were, rather than the laws of the language.”

He offers still another metaphoric image for the musical process Dante’s visionary language inspired: “It’s like milk being poured into a jar full of water, when you then see how the whiteness of the milk blends with the transparency of the water. On some level it’s very simple if you look at it from a distance; but if you look at it close up, you see the incredible complexity of the individual molecules and the unpredictable way the two liquids fuse.”

(c)2014 Thomas May – All rights reserved.

read the rest of the program essay here

Filed under: American music, choral music, commissions, new music

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