MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Morten Lauridsen and Lux Aeterna

Lauridsen_piano_web

Today begins the 2017 Chorus America Conference, hosted by the Los Angeles Master Chorale. There will be a celebration of the 20th anniversary of Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna, which the Master Chorale commissioned when he was composer-in-residence.

My essay for Chorus America on the enormous impact Lauridsen has had on the contemporary choral music has now been posted:

In the last decade of the 20th century, the composer Morten Lauridsen wrote a series of pieces while serving a residency for the Los Angeles Master Chorale that have had a lasting and international impact. This year the choral world celebrates the 20th anniversary of the largest of these milestones, Lux Aeterna. What has given the Lauridsen aesthetic its power to connect and attract? And why does it continue to move performers, composers, and listeners?

continue reading

 

Filed under: choral music, Grant Gershon, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Morten Lauridsen

Stirring Season Finale from Seattle Pro Musica

seattlepromusica-fullchoirIn literature, it may be true that happy families are all alike, but Tolstoy’s principle doesn’t really apply to music.

Composers know no limits when it comes to expressing conditions we aspire to — whether happiness, love, or peace and reconciliation. Far from being bland and samey, every harmony — metaphorical and literal — is, to tweak Tolstoy, harmonious in its own way.

That was one of the many strong impressions left by last night’s performance at St. James Cathedral by Seattle Pro Musica (SPM). The program, titled dona nobis pacem, brings SPM’s highly rewarding season to its close with a characteristically bold and stirring send-off (repeat performance tonight, May 20). Its themes of war and peace — timed just ahead of Memorial Day — feel as urgent as ever.

Artistic Director Karen P. Thomas structured the program around Ralph Vaughan Williams’ choral-symphonic masterpiece of the same name, which filled out the second half. The first half comprised a fascinating variety of pieces also centered around the yearning for peace and solace, as well as the grief caused by war and violence. “It is when these themes are addressed that the unmistakable power of music is often mostly keenly felt,” writes Thomas “–to give voice to emotions which are beyond words … and to lift up the human spirit with visions of a better world and a nobler humanity.”

The concert additionally offered a deeply satisfying “status report” on the state of SPM itself — in glowing, radiant health — while displaying its unique strengths across the vocal spectrum. Thus Thomas launched the program with the subchoir Orpheon (the men’s voices) in a rarely heard choral work by Nikolai Golovanov from just before the Bolshevik Revolution. Setting a part of the Orthodox liturgy of St. John Chrysostom — and one of the last surviving compositions of a sacred music tradition that the Soviets sought to wipe out — Mercy of Peace established a mood of supernal calm with exquisitely tapered dynamics.

Next up was the all-women’s Chroma section in a piece SPM commissioned in 2007 from American composer John Muehleisen: Da Pacem, which subtly weaves in references to motets by J.S. Bach. Chroma followed their impassioned  account with the ancient plainchant melody Muehleisen used as a basis.

The next subchoir, Vox (mixed voices), turned to the English composer Herbert Howells, familiar in choral circles mostly for his Anglican sacred music. Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing, setting a text by the 4th-century Roman Christian poet Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, is a profoundly poignant composition from 1964 dedicated to the memory of the slain J.F. Kennedy (programmed to mark the centenary of JFK’s birth this month). The sense of unforced flow and long-range breathing Thomas commanded from her singers was a textbook example of effective choral phrasing.

Another delight of SPM’s programs is the seamless “staging” of the program’s order. While Chroma sang the mesmerizing canonical repetitions of another Da Pacem chant setting (by the German Renaissance-to-Baroque composer and theorist Johann Christoph Demantius), the full SPM ensemble discreetly gathered to join in for the remainder of the program’s first half.

The beginning words of the traditional Latin Requiem Mass inspired American composer and scholar Peter Winkler to write his musical response to 9/11 for a cappella choir, making powerful use of anguished silences and unexpected breaks in the voices to highlight the sense of desperation.

Thomas’s rich program included several other musical discoveries, such as Canadian composer Eleanor Daley’s 1998 setting of parts of For the Fallen, a poem by Laurence Binyon associated with England’s grieving for its loss at the beginning of World War One. Zachary Lyman’s trumpet offered a touching counterpart to the simple, heartfelt piece.

All season Thomas and SPM have been participating in a season-long celebration of the legacy of the late Bernard Herbolsheimer (who died in January 2016). And what a compelling piece they chose for this program: …for they shall… unfolds as a remarkable harmonic “battle” between the instruments (trumpets and timpani) and the choir, with the former playing martial and aggressive, almost chaotic, passages in strikingly different keys from the singers’ placid recitation of the Beatitudes — two worlds of violently contrasting sound that eventually align on the same key for a brief moment of hope, which is soon undercut by the menace of the timpani.

The Herbolsheimer also served to foreshadow the culminating Vaughan Williams. Ending the first half was another breath of respite in the famous Nunc dimittis from 1915 by Vaughan Williams’ friend Gustav Holst. Thomas paced the music beautifully, making the luminous climax of the work, written for eight-part choir, a destination not just reached but earned.

For the Vaughan Williams, SPM pulled out all the stops, glorying in the powerful emotions, contrasts, and colorful sound worlds of a full-blown symphonic-choral score. It’s not often we get to hear them perform on this scale — and the results were nothing short of thrilling.

dona nobis pacem is a visionary cantata created during a period of worldwide political fear and dread. Vaughan Williams wrote it in 1936, before “the clever hopes … of a low dishonest decade” had expired, to borrow Auden’s phrase. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain continued to stoke false hopes of appeasement, and Vaughan Williams’ cantata grew increasingly into a warning — another case of art lighting the way unheeded.

The concept behind the work is also advanced and would point the way to a later masterpiece of 20th-century English choral music: Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral (bombed in World War Two).

Agnostic (or atheist) that he was, Vaughan Williams is responsible for some of the most beautiful “sacred” music of the last century, including the 1921 Mass in G minor (reflecting his own experiences on the French battlefields in the Great War). dona nobis pacem isn’t a liturgical work by any means, but it exudes a Requiem’s sense of grappling with loss, of coming to terms with grief.

For his text, the composer combined some Biblical texts with poetry by his beloved Walt Whitman (the inspiration for his much earlier A Sea Symphony as well) and a brief speech excerpt from a British politician warning against Britain’s involvement in the 19th-century Crimean War.

The singers were joined by a full orchestral ensemble for the c. 40-minute composition, which began with soprano Tess Altiveros’ moving solo plea for peace (from the Agnus Dei) — a universal plea that soon segued into the concrete terrors catalogued in Whitman’s Beat! Beat! Drums!

Especially in Vaughan Williams’ brass-and-percussion-heavy musical guise — with a few nods to Verdi’s Requiem — the poem’s depiction of “terrible drums” and “bugles” interrupting the peaceable life became a Civil War Dies Irae. (Never mind that a certain U.S. President recently proved to be clueless even as to the basic facts of a war that so profoundly shaped the nation passed down to us.)

Thomas obviously regards this score as a masterwork and had rehearsed the assembled forces in great detail. She also displayed a magnificent theatrical sensibility in the pacing and unfolding of these complex emotions. (I’d be eager to have a chance to hear her conduct for the stage.) The transitions between movements were notably effective, as was the immersive brass climax after “the strong dead-march enwraps me” (in the fourth movement, “Dirge for Two Veterans”).

Baritone solo Matthew Hayward sang with gripping emotion in the third movement (“Reconciliation”), which comes closest to the intimate intensity of Britten’s later War Requiem. Given the challenges of the Cathedral acoustics for combined forces of this size, Thomas judged balances well, allowing for maximum impact at the moment when all hell truly does break loose in the apocalyptic “The Angel of Death.”

From there to the solo soprano’s return at the end — again pleading, imploring for the seemingly unreachable peace — is the endless cycle of humanity’s struggle. But however familiar the pattern, this rousing performance engaged the listener in the urgency of the message, and the vision, in this our time.

One more performance, tonight at 8:00 pm, at St. James Cathedral. Information here.

Review (c) 2017 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

 

 

Filed under: choral music, review, Seattle Pro Musica

Performing Art in the Trump Era: An Example from Seattle Pro Musica

seattle-pro-musica-1500x500

Photo by Shaya Bendix Lyon (courtesy of Seattle Pro Musica)

Here’s my review of Seattle Pro Musica’s recent concert for Vanguard Seattle:

Since 1987, she has presided over one of the finest choral collectives in the competitive, choral-rich Northwest: Seattle Pro Musica. Her musical sensibility is ideally matched to the transportive a cappella soundscapes in which her singers excel.

On top of that, Karen P. Thomas has an enviable knack for creating programs that cohere while offering enough variety to surfeit a hungry, curious musical appetite. (That’s an art in itself, one too often taken for granted in our era of casual iPod curation.)

continue reading

Filed under: choral music, review, Vanguard Seattle

Voices Uplifted: Cappella Romana Performs Rautavaara’s Vigilia

rautavaara_sep_2003_helsinki

My Seattle Times story on Cappella Romana’s upcoming Rautavaara program:

It’s the oldest instrument we’ve got.

Yet the musical possibilities of the human voice remain inexhaustible. And when a group of singers joins together a cappella — without the “props” of any other instruments for accompaniment — they can produce soundscapes as vivid and enveloping as what you might hear from the most sophisticated orchestra.

continue reading

Filed under: choral music, Seattle Times

Elgar’s Dream a Transformative Experience at Seattle Symphony

49938-ed-gardner-5sep12-c-b-ealovega-orig-crop

Edward Gardner © Benjamin Ealovega

At this late date, it’s surprising how relatively little-known The Dream of Gerontiusremains among American audiences. Edward Elgar’s masterpiece – even if not the composer’s own favourite among his great oratorio trilogy – contains all the goods to move a concert audience to its core. ..

continue reading

Filed under: choral music, Edward Elgar, review, Seattle Symphony

New from Los Angeles Master Chorale and Peter Sellars

At the end of the month the Los Angeles Master Chorale and artistic director Grant Gershon will open their season with a brand-new staging by Peter Sellars of Lagrime di San Pietro. This is the cycle of “spiritual madrigals”Orlando di Lasso composed at the very end of his life in 1594. Here’s my essay for the program:

A SAINT’S REMORSE: LASSO’S HIGH RENAISSANCE MASTERPIECE

What’s the correct way to refer to one of the most extraordinary musical minds in history: Orlande/Orlando/Roland de Lassus/di Lasso? There’s a Franco-Flemish form and an Italianized one; sometimes the two get mixed together. There’s even a Latin option intended to standardize the situation. The very profusion of variants points to the internationalism and cross-pollination across borders that marked the era of the High Renaissance in Europe.

continue reading

Filed under: choral music, directors, essay, Grant Gershon, Los Angeles Master Chorale

Sonic Masterworks

Grant Gershon leads the Los Angeles Master Chorale in the final program of the season this weekend. Here’s a bit about one of the pieces, Anders Hillborg’s Mouyayoum:

Mouyayoum dates from 1983 – relatively early in Hillborg’s career – and represents a Nordic take on Minimalism. The title is merely a formula: a phonetic reference point for Hillborg’s wordless music. During rehearsal of the piece, he asks the singers to “choose a comfortable pitch and sing the formula [mouyayoum] at a slow tempo such that each individual phoneme is consciously articulated (legato); once this starts to work, gradually increase the tempo; finally, sing so quickly that the individual phonemes cannot be articulated clearly and the formula is perceived as a single sound.”

The musical material derives from transparent harmonies and two types of phrases extending over 16 quarter notes: one sustained and one broken into a flow of 16th notes.

continue reading

Filed under: choral music, Los Angeles Master Chorale

Mystery Mass: Seattle Pro Musica celebrates Bach’s enigmatic masterpiece in B minor

pmissing18_10

Here’s my Seattle Times story on Karen Thomas and Seattle Pro Musica’s preparation for the Bach Mass in B minor, their concluding program of the season (this weekend):

Many classical-music fans consider Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B minor as the ultimate peak of Western choral music — but the composer never heard it performed in its entirety.

continue reading

Filed under: Bach, choral music, preview, Seattle Times

Alexander’s Feast: A Handelian Ode to the Power of Music

2016-04-16-alexanders-feastMy essay on Handel’s magnificent ode Alexander’s Feast has been posted on the LA Master Chorale Site:

It sounds strange to refer to George Frideric Handel as a neglected composer. Messiah is such a fixture that the holiday season would feel bereft   were it suddenly to disappear from the scene. (Never mind that its association with Christmas postdates the practice during the composer’s lifetime.)

continue reading

Filed under: choral music, Handel, Los Angeles Master Chorale

Hidden Handel

Director Trevore Ross on staging Handel’s oratorios for the LA Master Chorale. First in their five-season-long project is Alexander’s Feast.

Filed under: choral music, directors, Handel, Los Angeles Master Chorale

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

RSS Arts & Culture Stories from NPR