For a few moments, memories of cheery victory parades turned a mite sour as Paul Johnson led the Los Angeles Concert Singers in a haunting, understated version of the anti-war ballad "Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye" Wednesday in Phillips Hall at Rancho Santiago College.
But within a few minutes, Johnson veered in an opposite direction when he closed the concert with an equally effective version of the rousing "Battle Hymn of the Republic."
These radically conflicting viewpoints toward war, offered virtually back to back, seemed to rattle few in the audience. But then, Johnson treated the pieces merely as popular songs to contrast with the heavier repertory that made up the bulk of the program. But the juxtaposition signaled the weakness of the concert. Johnson was at his best shaping musical lines, not addressing texts.
He was particularly adept at scaling down dynamics, although his generalized gestures also resulted in heavy metrical stress. But rarely did he color or explore individual words.
The ensemble--made up on this occasion of 19 singers rather than the 22 mentioned in a company brochure--sang the demanding, mostly a cappella program with refinement, clarity and focus.
To be sure, in several Renaissance pieces that opened the program, the singers made some tentative entrances, wavered in sustaining tone and weakly sketched solo embroidered lines. Balances also tended to be skewed upward toward the range of the women's voices, with the men sounding unconfident.
Generally, however, the group sang with intelligent commitment, although with more evident spirit in the 20th-Century works, such as Jean Berger's "Canticle of the Sun," for which Marlo Fischer provided sensitive viola accompaniment.
Pianist Twyla Meyer, perhaps struggling with a recalcitrant instrument, offered dutiful playing in Faure's "Cantique de Jean Racine" and cheerless accompaniment for Rossini's "I Gondolieri" and "La Passeggiata."
The program also included four of Morten Lauridsen's "Madrigali" and Craig Phillips' Psalm 42, reviewed on a program by the group in Los Angeles in May.