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L.A. Master Chorale lifts 100 voices in honor of the Bernstein centennial

L.A. Master Chorale lifts 100 voices in honor of the Bernstein centennial
The 100 singers of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, dressed in black and under the direction of Grant Gershon in Walt Disney Concert Hall, performs Orff's "Carmina Burana" with the Los Angeles Children's Choir, in red. Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms" opened the program. (Los Angeles Master Chorale)

The Leonard Bernstein centennial has begun — and over the next two years, we will be inundated with a worldwide deluge of his works that exceeds anything during his lifetime, as famous and as celebrated as Bernstein was.

The Los Angeles Master Chorale and Artistic Director Grant Gershon were quick on the draw, opening their new season in Walt Disney Concert Hall over the weekend with Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms" as a gateway to Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana." That's a compatible coupling, come to think of it. Both pieces have a cyclical nature, closing with material that they opened with; Orff repeats his opening verbatim while Bernstein transforms his. Both pieces have snazzy, splashy passages that once made the stuffed shirts and academia uncomfortable. And both works exuberantly celebrate life, which is a good idea for a season-opening concert.

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"Chichester Psalms" was basically a salvage job from a Bernstein composing sabbatical that had gone awry. A projected musical based on Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth" had been abandoned, and then an attempt to adopt the then-fashionable 12-tone system yielded nothing. So Bernstein fell back on an old habit — raiding his trunk — and incorporated scraps from "The Skin of Our Teeth," plus an outtake from "West Side Story," into a new choral work.

Hence "Chichester Psalms," which will be one of Bernstein's most-performed pieces this season. The San Francisco Symphony played it last weekend too, and Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic will have at it in April. But Gershon and his colleagues are running smack into a formidable benchmark: Bernstein's own electric performances, enshrined on one video and two audio recordings.

It's a tough act to follow, and I have to admit that the first movement of "Chichester Psalms" Sunday night fell short of the uninhibited exuberance that this music can generate; the approach was too legato, in need of sharper accents. However, the gentler remaining two movements produced choral singing of great beauty and clarity, with 13-year-old boy soprano Jamie Felix-Toll hitting the right plain-spoken tone of innocence.

Baritone Stephen Powell, left, with conductor Grant Gershon, tenor Nicholas Phan and soprano So Young Park.
Baritone Stephen Powell, left, with conductor Grant Gershon, tenor Nicholas Phan and soprano So Young Park. (Los Angeles Master Chorale)

I have no reservations about the "Carmina Burana" performance, though, for Gershon, the Master Chorale, its orchestra and the Los Angeles Children's Chorus gave it all of the flamboyance and boisterous energy that one would want while also heightening the sensuality in certain passages that often gets overlooked.

Tenor Nicholas Phan fearlessly conveyed desperation in his brief solo in Part II, and soprano So Young Park's pure virginal lyric soprano gradually acquired some worldly sensual awakening as the text suggests. They also went for some laughs by having the able, forthright baritone Stephen Powell hold onto the podium rail and stagger a bit in the tavern scene.

At one time, live performances soft-pedaled the PG-rated Latin and German text of medieval pursuits of wine, women and song. But at sold-out Disney Hall, the English translations were projected for all to see and savor. Good!

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