Review: Los Angeles Master Chorale at Disney Concert Hall

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In the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s multi-season survey of Haydn’s Masses, music director Grant Gershon put together a number of odd-couple juxtapositions – Haydn with Rachmaninoff, Haydn with Andriessen among them. For the conclusion of the series Sunday night, Gershon hit upon the most inspired combination of all – Haydn and Messiaen.

Both, as it happens, are the focus of ongoing commemorations this season – the bicentennial of Haydn’s death and the centennial of Messiaen’s birth. Both were among the most devoutly religious composers of their times; Haydn wrote 14 Masses, no less, and almost everything Messiaen did was a manifestation of his strong Catholic faith.

But you didn’t have to be a Catholic – or even read the texts – to get a full jolt of the exuberance and radiance of the two very different, formidably-titled works that Gershon led on Sunday at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Haydn’s “Missa Sancti Bernardi von Offida” and Messiaen’s “Trois Petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine.”

Messiaen may have had the most serious of religious intentions for his piece – premiered just as World War II was ending in Europe – yet the overriding impression is one of sheer fun. Yes, fun – with all of its delicious, sensual, chromium-plated sonorities, luminous repeating melodies, changing meters, and the 36 female singers who in Part III chanted some of their lines with increasing vehemence.


Messiaen himself described the solo piano part as “studding the texture with diamonds” – and it’s hard to top that as a description of pianist Vicki Ray’s performance, so we’ll let it stand. He also made use of an early, now-obsolete electronic instrument, the ondes Martenot (hence, perhaps, the main reason why “Trois Liturgies” is a rare visitor to concert halls) – and its interplanetary whoops and vibrations were playfully controlled by Mary Chun, who is supposedly one of only two professional “ondistes” living in the United States.

Gershon, for his part, did a terrific job of pulling off the delirious rushes of near-chaotic dissonances and shattering crescendos – and the dazzling clarity of Messiaen’s sonorities in Walt Disney Concert Hall produced repeated outbreaks of goosebumps. In a word, this performance deserved a ‘Wow.’

The Haydn Mass – nicknamed “Heilig Mass” – is another relatively scarce item that should be better-known. While Messiaen titillates the senses, Haydn embraces you with cheerful affirmation and optimism, unleashing one inventive musical idea after another. Gershon and his expert chorus caught and projected this affirmative quality with a bright, robust choral timbre, generally vigorous tempos and gracefully swinging rhythms. In this finale to the Haydn project, Gershon went out on top.

-- Richard S. Ginell