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Music Reviews : ‘Holiday Garland’ a Dignified Affair

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Paul Salamunovich’s first holiday program with the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Saturday afternoon at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, was called “A Holiday Garland.” But it also might have been named after a 29-year-old Richard Rodgers musical: “No Strings.” Yes, the usual backbone of the Sinfonia Orchestra was banished for the weekend, leaving just a compact yet bracing ensemble of brass, two flutes, harp, organ, piano and percussion.

It was all the backing Salamunovich needed for a dignified, intelligently designed, gimmick-free concert. Well, almost gimmick-free, for the audience was asked to carol along with Conrad Susa’s glittering string of common holiday pearls, “A Christmas Garland,” after intermission.

The first half began in the Renaissance and segued cunningly into the 20th Century. Though the Chorale’s warm, rich, legato tone might ruffle the feathers of the authenticity crowd, the singers produced a beautifully shaded rendition of Victoria’s “Ave Maria,” cranked up the volume and intensity levels in Morales’ “Magnificat, Modo I” and offered a mellow, understated “Hodie Christus Natus Est” by Sweelinck.

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The contemporary payoff for this low-key opening was Vaclav Nelhybel’s marvelous “Estampie Natalis,” which takes a Gregorian melody and flings it against a tromping corps of triangle, drum and trombone. Like Nelhybel’s neglected “Music for Orchestra,” the piece slowly builds a head of steam toward a flamboyant, audience-pleasing conclusion.

John Rutter’s “Gloria” picked up the ball from there, loading up on punching brass, snazzy syncopation and grand choral fortissimos that sound as if they were pilfered from Walton’s “Belshazzar’s Feast.” Be that as it may, the “Gloria” was still a thrilling vehicle for the Chorale, not to mention the crisp brasses.

Finally, in the closing series of nine carol arrangements (plus a “Silent Night” encore), the Chorale confidently displayed a cross-section of its new strengths under Salamunovich--the robust depth of the male voices, increased sensitivity to dynamic levels and crystal-clear enunciation at all times.

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