MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Shawn Kirchner and Gerard Manley Hopkins

Shawn Kirchner

Shawn Kirchner

The Los Angeles Master Chorale and their music director Grant Gershon can always be counted on to offer innovative and thoughtful programming — the right blend of classics, unfairly forgotten pieces, and fresh commissions — but they’ve outdone even themselves in designing the grand finale concert of this 50th-anniversary season, titled Today, Tomorrow, & Beyond.

It’s actually mind-blowing; a piece that was commissioned only two seasons ago from Gabriela Lena Frank and world premieres of music by Esa-Pekka Salonen, David Lang, Francisco Núñez, and the LAMC’s own Shawn Kirchner, who sings with the ensemble and is their current composer-in-residence.

I recently interviewed Shawn to talk about his latest composition. (I’ll post my essay for the program as we get closer to the actual concert date.) In the wake of the choral cycle Plath Songs, which he composed last year for LAMC, Shawn has immersed himself in the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. The result is an ambitious new “choral sonata” he’s calling Inscapes.

Shawn explained to me that Hopkins came from a family of artists “and was actually quite sensate in his perceptions of things because he was trained as a painter. Eleanor Ruggles, who wrote one of the definitive biographies of Hopkins, describes the inscape as the manifestation of Being itself. So in the whole cycle I’m trying to connect with that level of awe in perceiving a part of nature, a tree or a kingfisher. These aren’t just pretty pictures of nature; they’re all part of the ‘royal perception’ of the intrinsic patterns of being.”

Alfred William Garrett, William Alexander Comyn Macfarlane, and Gerard Manley Hopkins; photo by Thomas C. Bayfield, 1866

Alfred William Garrett, William Alexander Comyn Macfarlane, and Gerard Manley Hopkins; photo by Thomas C. Bayfield, 1866

By lovely coincidence, Helen Vendler has a fine essay in a recent issue of the London Review of Books. She reviews Oxford’s new edition of the poet’s correspondence — two volumes (some 499 letters) that are part of its Collected Works series, which is projected to run to eight volumes when complete.

An early convert to Hopkins’s poetry, Vendler remarks that the letters opened up an entirely new perspective:

After reading the poems I went to the poet’s correspondence, and met another Hopkins, attractive in his successive enthusiasms and his incorruptible honesty, but immensely strange in his intransigent literary morals.
[…]
In letters, Hopkins always spoke his mind with trenchancy and purpose, even to the point of endangering his ties to his correspondents. His enlivening wit sprang frequently from the pages, as did his sardonic commentary on aspects of Victorian language and culture.
[…]
The subjects that interested Hopkins were chiefly intellectual ones; even his most sensuous responses to the natural world were immediately referred to the intellect, which, in the poetry, meant referral to philosophical or theological thought.

Filed under: American music, choral music, poetry

Illumining Through Sound: Tribute to Morten Lauridsen

Morten Lauridsen

Morten Lauridsen

Over the weekend the Los Angeles Master Chorale performed program devoted entirely to the music of Morten Lauridsen. Here’s my essay for the program:

Well before he took up his composer residency with the Master Chorale in 1995, Morten Lauridsen’s artistic odyssey had already begun to intersect with the ensemble’s own unfolding history. He was only a year into college when he experienced an epiphany that made him realize his calling was a life dedicated to music. Spending the summer as a firefighter for the Forest Service in his native state of Washington, the young man was posted to an isolated tower in the wilds of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, south of Mount St. Helens. Lauridsen found himself completely on his own for a ten-week stretch. But his perspective from that lonely lookout tower revealed “beauty beyond description – to be above the clouds with these magnificent snowy peaks,” as Lauridsen puts it in Shining Night, the award-winning recent documentary portrait filmed by Michael Stillwater.

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Filed under: American music, choral music

Passio: Light in Darkness

Karen Thomas

Karen Thomas

I’ve always admired the quality and imagination of Karen Thomas’s programming for Seattle Pro Musica, but their upcoming program, titled Passio: Light in Darkness, has me champing at the bit, to put it frankly.

“The concept for Passio is music related to Lent and the deep human emotions this season has inspired composers to explore,” says Thomas, who not only directs Pro Musica but is herself a composer. And that can also take the form of completely secular works like the little match girl passion by David Lang, which draws on models from Medieval mystery plays and J.S. Bach’s Passions to retell a children’s story of searing, tragic simplicity.

The fact that Pro Musica will be presenting match girl (in the area premiere of the choral version) is by itself enough of a sell: this just happens to be one of the most haunting and inspired choral compositions by an American composer in recent years. But the program also includes a “re-discovered” rarity from the Russian choral rep: Passion Week by Rachmaninoff contemporary Alexander Gretchaninoff (1864-1956). Plus, there will be sprinklings of music by Benjamin Britten, Thomas Weelkes, and living composers like Paul Mealor and Kay Rhie. All of these selections, in different ways, highlight the special strengths of Seattle Pro Musica — and of the smaller ensembles comprising the company.

Seattle Pro Musica

Seattle Pro Musica

Lang, an LA native now based in New York (and known as one of the co-founders of the innovative Bang on a Can new-music outfit), has fast forwarded the American maverick lineage into the 21st century. Lang is also an adventurous collaborator who has worked with the likes of photographer William Wegman and the film director Jonathan Parker (scoring the 2009 indie comedy (Untitled). But for the little match girl passion, which won the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2008, Lang engages in a remarkably original “collaboration” with sources you don’t normally associate with each other. He uses the tradition of musical settings of the Christian Passion narrative as a model for his retelling of an incredibly poignant children’s story by fairy-tale master Hans Christian Andersen.

The root of the word “passion” is from the Latin term for suffering. Lang strips away the traditional religious associations of the Passion story but uses the narrative techniques that were pioneered and perfected by Bach — “commentary” passages interpolated into the ongoing story — to recount the suffering and death of the little girl in Andersen’s story who tries to sell matches on a street corner on a brutally cold New Year’s Eve. Or, another way to put it, as Lang himself does: “There is no Bach in my piece and there is no Jesus — rather, the suffering of the little match girl has been substituted for Jesus’, elevating (I hope) her sorrow to a higher plane.”

There have been many musical adaptations of Andersen’s tale — TV musicals, operas, a synthpop video by Erasure, a concept album by The Tiger Lillies. But nothing I know comes close to the gut-wrenching impact of Lang’s treatment. His post-Minimalist score is deceptively simple, in keeping with the story. Spare harmonies and other archaisms evoke the starkness of early Medieval chant (think Perotin — that far back); tiny gestures generate maximal emotional response.

“There’s an extremely intimate quality to it,” Thomas explains. “Lang’s music has an immediacy and at the same time a kind of emotional reserve about it, because of the way he writes for the voices to evoke the Evangelist in a Bach Passion or a Greek chorus. So there’s a certain coldness and detachment as well that makes the tragic story that much more poignant as a result.”

Over the past two weeks, in concerts featuring the same vocal soloists, I’ve taken advantage of the rare opportunity to experience and compare the two great Passions by J.S. Bach that survive. (Pro Musica also performed the St. John Passion two seasons ago.) So it should be especially fascinating to encounter Lang’s piece, which I’ve long treasured since on recordings, with this context fresh in mind. Yet on its own terms, match girl is an immediately gripping and effective work, a mix of modern morality play and music theater — but with none of the preachiness that can sometimes creep into, say, a performance of Brecht.

Alexander Gretchaninoff in 1910

Alexander Gretchaninoff in 1910

As for Gretchaninoff’s Passion Week, Karen Thomas points out that it will beautifully complement the pared-down sound of Lang’s little match girl passion by taking us to another extreme of lushness and blooming choral texture. Premiered in Russia in 1912, Passion Week sets texts from the Russian Orthodox liturgy that are used as prayers during the week that culminates in Easter. Gretchaninoff, a student of Rimsky-Korsakov, was part of the Renaissance of Russian choral music in the early 20th century that’s also represented by Rachmaninoff’s beloved Vespers (1915).

“In Gretchaninoff’s setting you can hear the influence of early Russian music and chant even more clearly,” says Thomas. “And he writes even more extensively for the low range of the basses than Rachmaninoff. This will sound especially compelling when heard in the acoustic space of St. James.”

Thomas adds that the prayers Gretchaninoff sets combine mystical and liturgical texts. They tend to be “more of a personal reflection” on the events of Good Friday, for example, than the librettos Bach set for his Passions. But this music fell into oblivion in the wake of the Soviet Union’s official crackdown on the Russian choral movement that had begun to take flight. Gretchaninoff himself stayed for a time but finally emigrated to the U.S. in 1939. His Passion Week wasn’t revived until the 1990s. Thomas believes these may be the first Seattle area performances.

An additional note: Yet another composer involved in the Russian choral movement — and another Rimsky student — will be in the spotlight next month when Cappella Romana presents the recently rediscovered Passion Week of Maximilian Steinberg, “the last major sacred work composed in Russia before Stalin’s 1932 crackdown (April 11 and 12).

And: Seattle Symphony is presenting a special symposium on March 22-23 on the theme Creative Diaspora: Émigré Composers from the Former USSR. Speakers will include no less than Russian music authority Richard Taruskin. The symposium is scheduled in conjunction with the U.S. premiere of Alexander Raskatov’s Night Butterflies Piano Concerto.

Seattle Pro Musica’s Passio – Light in Darkness concerts take place on Saturday and Sunday, March 8 and 9, both evenings at 8 pm at St. James Cathedral. Tickets here.

Thomas May

Filed under: choral music, new music, preview

A Ceremony of Britten

Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears

Benjamin Britten (r) and Peter Pears (l)

And so we arrive at the last of the big three composer anniversaries this year – the anniversaries that not so long ago seemed to loom on the other side of the apocalypse said to be awaiting us in 2012. November 22 – Saint Cecilia’s Day, the patron saint of music, as it has become obligatory to point out – marks the official centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten.

I wish I could come up with something a fraction as eloquent as my colleagues to pay tribute to the creative genius of this endlessly fascinating figure, but my recent essay on the War Requiem will have to do the honors:

Ruin and Renewal: Britten’s War Requiem

“I was completely absorbed in this piece, as really never before, but with considerable agony in finding the adequate notes for such a subject (and such words!), and dread discovering that I’ve not succeeded.” So Benjamin Britten confided to a friend not long before the War Requiem‘s premiere in May 1962.

Britten’s agony produced not only one of the landmark compositions of his career but a testimony to the power of art to confront humanity’s failings and at the same time to offer hope. As for the dread of not succeeding, the War Requiem stands out as a rare instance in 20th-century music of a new work that was greeted with overwhelming approval by critics and audiences alike.

“The composer’s duty, as a member of society,” declared Britten in his famous speech accepting the Aspen Award in 1964, “[is] to speak to or for his fellow human beings.” From first note to last, the War Requiem holds true to this conviction of the role of music in society. The ethical perspective of the lifelong pacifist who had been a conscientious objector in the Second World War converges with the remarkable gifts that made Britten one of the supreme musical dramatists of the past century and a master of large-form architecture.

At the same time, the imperative to communicate by no means requires adhering to safe, comfortable formulas. In taking up one of the most tradition-laden texts of Western music, the Latin Mass for the Dead, Britten challenges and reinvigorates the very meaning of this ritual.

After the Second World War, the composer had actually considered Requiem-like works to commemorate the victims of the atomic bombings of Japan and, later, the assassination of Gandhi, but these plans never crystallized. Earlier, in 1940, he had written a purely instrumental Sinfonia da Requiem, but that work exists in a category all its own. The commission to supply a new score as part of the upcoming consecration of the newly rebuilt Coventry Cathedral provided Britten with the stimulus he needed at last to embark on a large-scale choral-symphonic composition.

Winston Churchill visits Coventry Cathedral in ruins after the bombing of 14/15 November 1940

Winston Churchill visits Coventry Cathedral in ruins after the bombing of 14/15 November 1940

Carpenter suggests that the composer’s sadness over the recent suicide of a former friend who had survived the war but struggled with depression may have also occasioned the need to compose the War Requiem as a more private response to tragedy. This may explain Britten’s puzzling statement: “That’s what the War Requiem is about; it is reparation.” In his recently published Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music, the biographer and journalist Neil Powell notes that “a work which had originated as a very public commission was increasingly concerned with a very private subtext.”

Bombing raids by the Luftwaffe during the blitzkrieg in 1940 had nearly destroyed the industrial city of Coventry in the West Midlands, including the Gothic Cathedral of St. Michael dating from the 14th century. The Scottish architect Basil Spence designed a new modernist structure, but not merely as replacement: he decided to retain the roofless, ruined shell of the earlier church, whose spire had been left standing, and link it to the new building.

The consecration ceremony thus offered an occasion to reflect on the destruction wrought by the war – at the height, it will be recalled, of the Cold War that was threatening outright annihilation of humanity. Just a few months after the War Requiem‘s premiere, the Cuban Missile crisis would bring the West to the brink of apocalypse.

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

Britten wasn’t interested in a reassuring but simplistic idealism about the sacrifices of war that whitewashed or forgave war’s inherent atrocity. The War Requiem – the title itself suggests an uneasy juxtaposition – thus combines the traditional Latin texts (with one telling change, in the Agnus Dei) with the mordantly ironic antiwar poetry of Wilfred Owen, a victim of the First World War. (His brother Harold sent Britten a letter praising the War Requiem and expressing joy “that Wilfred’s poetry will forever be a part of this great work.”)

The implicit homoeroticism of Owen’s poetry also resonated with Britten, who had already set his words to music alongside several other poets in the song cycle Nocturne (1958); its sound world in fact foreshadows parts of the War Requiem. As an epigraph to the latter, Britten quoted a passage by Owen that mirrors his own vision here as a composer: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do is to warn.”

To anchor his antiwar message, Britten taps into a tradition of sacred music which carries a plea for peace amid contemporary turmoil. Well-known examples from the sacred music canon are Haydn’s Missa in tempore belli and Beethoven’s Missa solemnis. Britten’s mixture of Latin liturgical texts with secular poetry is likewise not without precedent. Yet he juxtaposes the poems of Owen so that they become a provocative commentary on the familiar Requiem. The result is a complex yet ingeniously lucid six-movement structure in which is embedded an ongoing song cycle for tenor and baritone.

In a sense, this fusion of the ancient and the modern to underscore both the “pity” and the poet’s warning – the secondary level that comments on the primary, ritual, archaic level – might be interpreted as the composer’s musical and textual counterpart to Spence’s bold architectural design.

In his Aspen speech, Britten refers to the importance of suiting the music to the setting: “The best music to listen to in a great Gothic cathedral is the polyphony which was written for it, and was calculated for its resonance: this was my approach in the War Requiem. I calculated it for a big, reverberant acoustic and that is where it sounds best.”

But it’s more specifically Spence’s conflation of ruin and renewal that is replicated in Britten’s unique structure, which at several points subverts the expected biblical truths. This happens to especially devastating effect, for example, in Owen’s dark retelling of the sacrifice of Isaac, which intervenes in the Offertorium and inverts its message with terrible irony.

Immediately following this is the shockingly triumphant Sanctus, with its echoes of both ceremonial gamelan music and Monteverdi; this in turn is countered by Owen’s poetic denial of the afterlife’s consolation in the baritone’s solo. The apocalyptic and the personal, the archetypal pattern and the concretely, painfully historical moment – these are the different planes which intersect in fascinating ways throughout the War Requiem.

Britten’s vast array of performing forces further points to the architectural and spatial aspects of his conception. The scoring is divided into three groupings that are perceived to emanate from three distinct spheres. There is the conventional sound world of the full orchestra (including enlarged brass and percussion sections) and mixed chorus, which sings only the Latin texts, and the soprano solos.

If these performers are the world of humanity in general, facing our mortal condition, the boys’ choir, accompanied throughout by organ or harmonium, exists suspended beyond it as the voice of eternal, angelic innocence. (Britten specifies that their sound is to be “distant.”) The third level, with its reduced satellite orchestra and two male soloists, is closer to the world of art song and chamber opera. This is the real world of violence and meaningless death, not ideals – the plane on which innocence is corrupted.

Spire of Coventry Cathedral

Spire of Coventry Cathedral

Mediating among all these spheres is the core harmonic idea of the War Requiem: the interval of the tritone (heard at the outset as C pitted against F-sharp), whose instability highlights the pervasive feeling of ambivalence. “There are very few easy resolutions in Britten’s later work,” writes Powell, “and ease, when it is attempted, is always troubled by ambiguity.”

This is how Powell reads the composer’s statement near the end of his life about the effect on him of witnessing Belsen and other former concentration camps during a tour he and Yehudi Menuhin undertook shortly after the Second World War. Britten said “that the experience had colored everything he had written subsequently,” as his partner Peter Pears disclosed.

In his unforgettable setting of the final Owen poem, Britten dissolves the scene of immense pathos of the former enemy soldiers meeting after death. As they choose eternal peace and oblivion, Britten leads us into the final Latin prayer In Paradisum, where, for the first time, he joins all the performing forces together. The chorus repeats the harmonic sequence that had concluded the first movement, but the composer forces us to wonder: is this merely the reboot of humanity’s eternally recurring pattern?

(C) 2013 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Britten, choral music, requiem

LA Master Chorale at 50

LAMC-50
(The LAMC’s four music directors, left to right: Roger Wagner, John Currie, Paul Salamunovich, and Grant Gershon)

Last night the Los Angeles Master Chorale launched its 50th season with a gala looking back over a century of music-making. The program explored the half-century of this world-class choral ensemble from its beginnings under Roger Wagner for the newly constructed LA Music Center, through the innovations of current music director Grant Gershon. Most of Gershon’s tenure coincides with the 10th anniversary of Disney Hall, also being feted this fall.

Paul Salamunovich, Gershon’s immediate predecessor, had also planned to attend but unfortunately became seriously ill within the past few days. Morten Lauridsen, composer-in-residence in the Salamunovich era, was present, and I couldn’t imagine a finer tribute to the Salamunovich era than the Chorale’s transporting rendition of Lauridsen’s “Magnum Mysterium” — one of their signature pieces.

The highlights from Gershon’s own years so far encapsulated his remarkable breadth of knowledge and his subtle, sensitive choral conducting. I especially loved the connection he made between the “spatial music” both of Thomas Tallis’s “Spem in alium” (great way to show off the Disney acoustics) and of contemporary Korean composer Hyowon Woo.

It also reminded me of Gershon’s brilliance as a programmer who takes satisfying risks — forays into non-Western music as well as the roots of the American tradition, and of course commissions from living composers. Shawn Kirchner, a tenor with the Chorale, is their current composer-in-residence. His fabulous arrangements of traditional Americana are irresistible, and he recently completed an ambitious song cycle on poems of Sylvia Plath (premiered at the end of last season).

LAMC
(Current and former LAMC members in rehearsal for 50th season gala concert)

While the orgy of self-praise at the Emmys was happening nearby, this was the real hot ticket. I write about the LAMC’s history and the musical selections of the evening here.

Filed under: choral music

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