Any history of vocal music, and especially choral music, is by and large a history of sacred music. Seeing the text of a mass or a passion printed in the program for a choral performance is as predictable as the rising of the sun. And yet, imbuing those frequently Latin words with feeling isn’t always so easy. Many choruses have the benefit of doing so in a church or other religious setting where the hearts of the faithful can help bridge the gaps left by deficiencies in technique or aesthetics. But pulling this off without the accoutrements of worship is another matter. Producing a superb choral performance of extensible sacred music in a secular environment takes a lot of talent and hard work. The fact that the Los Angeles Master Chorale does this on a regular basis with seeming ease is staggering.
The case-in-point would be this past Sunday’s performance from the LAMC under Grant Gershon coming amid one of their strongest seasons in recent years. The program included both Bruckner’s Mass No. 2 in E minor paired with Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Granted, these are not your every day church choir pieces. And their relationship to real modern day faith-based services or practice is tangential. But the choral work here was piercingly beautiful. Bruckner, of course, is far better known for his orchestral works than choral ones, but this Mass was unmistakably his. Even with its small ensemble of brass and woodwinds as accompaniment, however, the gestures here tend to be grand in the late Romantic style. From the very opening of the piece, the Kyrie barrels out like any other composer’s Agnus Dei. The power and bright beauty of the music continued unabated for the whole 45 minutes or so, and the chorale had a clean, rich multi-layered sound.
The second half of the evening used a bit of a trick to extend Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms by pairing it with Bruckner’s short motet, Os justi meditabitur sapientiam. The lovely vocal waves of the Bruckner gave way to the percussive entrance to Stravinsky’s piece without pause under Gershon’s direction. It was a clever jump right into the 20th Century with a work the LAMC has proven itself to excel in many times, particularly in collaboration with the Los Angeles Philharmonic during its tenure under Stravinsky specialist Esa-Pekka Salonen. Hearing it again with the same lovely chorus couldn’t help but bring back memories of those poignant and glorious final concerts the L.A. Phil had under Esa-Pekka Salonen in April 2009 – his last as Music Director here. And while Sunday's performance didn't quite reach those heights overall, vocally it was again lovely, mustering spiritual overtones beyond what the occasion might suggest on the surface.
That Gershon and his chorus managed such a show just a week after their collaboration in the mammoth performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, with hundreds of others under Gustavo Dudamel at the Shrine, is further testament to exactly how finely tuned an ensemble this chorus is. We need more of them and maestro Gershon undoubtedly. And, of course, we in Los Angeles are getting some of that as Gershon becomes a larger and larger player in the opera world not only by his guest appearances in such places as Santa Fe, but in his continued alliance with the Los Angeles Opera. One wonders if ever higher-profile podiums aren’t in his near future.