Music review: L.A. Master Chorale’s folk music program at Disney Hall

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Grant Gershon’s term at the head of the Los Angeles Master Chorale has been mostly noted for his expansion into new music, in parallel to what has been going on at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He knows it, saying he “pushes the envelope,” sometimes to the consternation of more conservative choral watchdogs.

Yet there is also room for the traditional American folk music program -- a staple of choral concerts seemingly forever -- on the Gershon agenda. And even in a season when the Master Chorale can fill the house with Mozart and John Adams, folk music remains a draw too, with Walt Disney Concert Hall looking almost completely packed Sunday night.

Leave it to Gershon to add a dash of Disney Hall showmanship to the venerable format, though. Instead of heading for the risers, the Master Chorale formed a rough circle in the aisles and onstage to open the program with selections from the Sacred Harp Anthology. As Gershon almost sheepishly acknowledged, this was only a partially authentic re-creation of a village-square sing (“We have actually rehearsed!”), but you would probably prefer to hear these refined, unified, vibrant voices in a concert situation.

Once the Master Chorale mounted the risers, the sophistication of the arrangements went up considerably. Four of them came from Master Chorale member Shawn Kirchner, who in “Angel Band” assigned the female and then male voices separate stanzas before combining them effectively. Aaron Copland was responsible for his signature treatments of five tunes from his “Old American Songs” sets, but not the choral arrangements; those were grafted onto Copland’s accompaniments by others.


In another category entirely were the fascinating arrangements of spirituals by the late Moses Hogan. His treatment of “Elijah Rock” had the choir acting as a giant rhythm section -- and now and then, he would insert wild solo wails from out of nowhere that would vanish like a mirage of a painful memory. William Billings’ “Retrospect,” a surprisingly dramatic mini-cantata from American Revolutionary times (1778), seemed to fall outside the general idea of “folk song” altogether.

Everywhere -- often in the exposed a cappella format -- the Master Chorale performed with its customary polish, subtlety and gusto.

-- Richard S. Ginell