Organized rather differently, "With a Mighty Voice"--the program offered by the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles on Saturday at First Congregational Church in Long Beach--could have formed a fairly conventional choral sampler. As it was, the abrupt deflections in spirit and style formed their own pattern of tension and release, and left no doubt that singing itself was both medium and message.
Director Jon Bailey reinforced this concept, closing each half of the concert with big, rhetorical proclamations of the importance of singing both as individual expression and as social activism. Mendelssohn's "Festival Ode to the Artists" is one of those blustery pieces of 19th century civic pomp, but "The Singer" by Estonian Veljo Tormis is a more personal statement of musical faith. Organ, brass and percussion abetted the hearty choral mass.
In this context, Durufle's sublime Sanctus--powerfully shaped by Bailey--could follow Verdi's earthy ditty "Ziti Ziti" without blush: it was the act of singing that was sacred here, not the text. Similarly, Gwyneth Walker's raucous arrangement of the Shaker hymn "How Can I Keep From Singing?" made perfect sense after Pablo Casals' beautifully austere "O Vos Omnes," sorrow and joy being simply two states of vocal grace, expressing the singing imperative rather than opposed emotions.
Bailey accepted the challenge posed by his program, leading the premiere of his own "Simple Songs." He writes knowingly for his chorus, giving it big tunes and rich sonorities in the framing panels of this triptych. His central Scherzo, however, sounded too glib and urbane for the desperation of James Skofield's text.
The rest of the program included choruses from "Carmina Burana," "The Flying Dutchman" and "The Magic Flute," Vivaldi's "In Memoria Aeterna," and American songs ranging from Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer" to Lauridsen's "Dirait-On." The large choir sang with committed vigor and attention throughout, sensitive to nuances of text and phrase.
* "With a Mighty Voice," Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles, Friday, 8 p.m., St. James Church, 3903 Wilshire Blvd.; Saturday, Pasadena Presbyterian Church, 54 N. Oakland Ave. $25 to $35. (800) 636-7464.