The Los Angeles Master Chorale, which began its 25th anniversary season with a strange concert at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Saturday, seems to be an institution in the state of flux. The flux, alas, may not be for the better.
Even in the worst of the good old days, the Master Chorale could be counted upon to produce an extraordinarily big, sensuous and flexible sound. That, of course, was the Roger Wagner sound.
One could sometimes grouse about interpretive matters. One certainly could gripe about Wagner's way with the accompanying Sinfornia Orchestra. There was no arguing, however, about the power and the polish of the chorus.
Now there is arguing.
John Currie, who assumed the podium during a rather acrimonious changing of the guard in 1986, is a very different sort of musician. Boldly, impetuously, and perhaps foolishly, he swept out a large percentage of (Roger) Wagnerian voices the moment he came through the Music Center door. He seems to favor a leaner sound and a less refined, more spontaneous manner.
That, of course, is his prerogative. Unfortunately, the results, as encountered on this would-be festive occasion, inspired little optimism.
To open the ill-balanced program, Currie chose the primitive, strangely poignant romanticism of Dvorak's "Te Deum." He allowed the resident Sinfonia Orchestra to churn out raucous noises that all but blanketed the somewhat scraggly chorale. The soloists, Katherine Luna and Nickolas Karousatos, got lost in the symphonic shuffle.
To counterbalance this incoherent religious exercise--and to close the first half of this choral celebration with the chorus oddly silent--the Scottish maestro bounced through to the gutsy yet whimsical Americana of Aaron Copland's "Rodeo." Here, Currie did a lot of frantic time-beating to produce a lot of irrelevant orchestral frenzy.
After intermission, he returned with the stuff instant audience hits are made of. Stressing speed rather than charm, color or comfort, he approximated the sublime vulgarity of Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana."
This, essentially, was a sloppy and hectic performance that underscored the crudity of the simplistic score. The chorus sang most of the right notes, but had little time to shape them into characterful phrases and showed little interest in dynamic subtlety. The orchestra--still too loud--sawed, scratched and tootled as if it were sight-reading.
Orff's repetitive, pre-minimalist, oh-so-folksy tricks rattled by in coarse and breathless jumble. The soloists did what they could under difficult circumstances. They approximated Orff's quirky linear convolutions while trying, sometimes in vain, to follow their hasty leader. Nuance was a sometime thing.
Karousatos' large, wooly and attractive baritone tended to strain at the top, evaporate at the bottom. Jonathan Mack forced his way full voice through the cruel stratospheric plaints of the roasted swan, without recourse to the comic falsetto sanctioned by the composer.
Luna ascended sweetly and easily to the climactic crest of the "Dulcissime" outburst. Remembered as a promising Puccinian in an Orange County "Boheme," she proved herself equally deft in the fioritura of defloration.
Another opening, another show. . . .