The lofty ‘Voices of Angels’

Special to The Times

Thinking big, reaching high, the Los Angeles Master Chorale commissioned a large-scale choral work about the Holocaust from the genre-hopping composer-pianist Billy Childs. The 44 1/2 -minute piece, a song cycle dressed as a cantata, is called “The Voices of Angels,” and it received its first performance Sunday night in Walt Disney Concert Hall.

No one could doubt the seriousness of the subject matter; nor the sincerity of the text, six poems from the book “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” written by children from the Terezin concentration camp; nor the desirability of the work’s goal: hope.

But this is a daunting subject that has stumped many brilliant musical minds -- Leonard Bernstein, for one, who wanted to write a Holocaust opera but never got past the planning stages. And Childs’ attempt falls short in a crucial way: It doesn’t stir the emotions.


There was no shortage of resources at hand, for Childs wrote the piece for a huge symphony orchestra and chorus, plus an adult vocalist (on Sunday, Brazilian jazz star Luciana Souza) and a child singer (15-year-old Catherine Leech). Yet much of the score transpired numbingly in an amorphous dream realm, with only mild outbreaks of violence and a grand yet curiously routine apotheosis at the close.

Childs often undercut his case with busy, overblown, clotted orchestral writing and thick choral textures that even the vaunted X-ray acoustics of Disney Hall could not sort out.

Leech struck an appropriately catatonic tone as she sang the words of a child whose experiences in the camp taught her to hate. Grant Gershon led the whole thing fervently. And for the record, the audience quickly rose to its collective feet in approval.

As a “gateway” to Childs, Gershon led off the evening with a robust performance of Mozart’s “Coronation” Mass, a succinct, sturdy “pocket Mass” in the best sense. There were few period-performance pretensions in his approach and none were missed; the ample-sized chorale’s clear, luminous singing and the big sound from the small orchestra were their own rewards.