Raising Their Voices for a Moral Imperative
Opening his second season at the helm of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon showed that challenging music doesn’t necessarily mean music that’s difficult to listen to. It can be music that states a moral imperative or exhorts us to do something.
In this case, two of the four works Sunday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion went beyond the front of the stage to engage and confront the audience: Sharon Farber’s “Haem Hashlishit” (Mother’s Lament) and Benjamin Britten’s “Cantata Misericordium” (Cantata of Mercy).
Farber’s work, receiving its world premiere, was written in response to the abduction and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl early this year. Britten wrote his Cantata to honor the 100th anniversary of the Red Cross, founded to serve victims of war.
The Farber piece was a late addition to the opening program of the chorale’s 39th season. Gershon received the unsolicited score in the summer and was so taken by it that he added it to the agenda. The chorale was able to get a translation of the Nathan Alterman poem on which it’s based into the program booklet, but unfortunately, without a transliteration of the Hebrew, it was hard to follow the text. Gershon introduced the work from the stage, as he did all the works.
The a cappella setting of Alterman’s poem, about nine minutes long, is direct, chant-like, flowing and text sensitive. Mothers’ voices lamenting their sons’ deaths (chorale members Deborah Mayhan, soprano, and Tracy Van Fleet, mezzo-soprano) emerge from the group and are reabsorbed by it, not so much in consolation--there isn’t any, there can’t be any--as in witnessing and sharing.
Britten’s Cantata, an almost operatic setting in Latin of the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus’ answer to a lawyer’s question about who is our neighbor, expands the issue of responsibility. In a masterly performance, the chorale was vehement in denouncing the priest and the Levite who pass by the injured traveler and eloquent in the final line addressed to the audience: “Vade et tu fac similiter” (go and do likewise). The guest soloists, tenor Bruce Sledge (the Samaritan) and baritone Robin Buck (the Traveler) were somewhat pallid.
Surrounding these two pieces were Verdi’s Te Deum and Schubert’s Mass in A flat. Verdi’s mighty work benefited from the 115 voices of the chorale and a large chorale orchestra.
But Schubert’s Mass was overwhelmed. In fact, one audience member remarked that there were more people on stage than Schubert ever met in his life.
The numbers signal Gershon’s grand approach to the work. This was large-scale, dramatic, at times fortissimo Schubert at the expense of intimate, sweet and personal Schubert. But the master of poignant, memorable melody did emerge, arrestingly in the line “Pleni sunt coeli” in the Sanctus. An energized soprano, Elissa Johnston, and a rather withheld mezzo-soprano, Leberta Clark, joined Sledge and Buck as guest soloists in the quartet.
In Verdi’s Te Deum, which opened the concert, the chorale offered mystery, sweep and glory, and proved that the master’s powers at 82 were still in blazing force. Johnston was the lovely offstage soloist.