CD review: ‘A Good Understanding,’ Los Angeles Master Chorale conducted by Grant Gershon


A measure of prominence in classical music has long been the major-label recording. The Master Chorale under Grant Gershon first got that five years ago with its Nonesuch release of Steve Reich’s “You Are (Variations).” But to some extent the Master Chorale rode on Reich’s coattails. Nonesuch is the composer’s label, and the chorus had commissioned the work.

“A Good Understanding,” its new recording on Decca of choral pieces by Nico Muhly, brings a different degree of prestige. (It is now available as a compressed mp3 download on iTunes but will reach the market as a full-fledged CD in fine sound this month.)

Here the chorus is being used to persuade a wider public than New Yorkers about Muhly, a young composer who is the talk of that town.

CD title: This review in Sunday’s Arts & Books section of the new Master Chorale recording of choral pieces by Nico Muhly said the title is “The Great Understanding.” The correct title is, in fact, “A Good Understanding.”

Muhly, who turned 29 last month, has already received two of New York’s top accolades — a New Yorker profile and a Metropolitan Opera commission. Although less known elsewhere, he has L.A. champions in Gershon and also the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s Jeffrey Kahane. Plus, Muhly has also composed appropriately treacly soundtracks to “Joshua” and “The Reader.”

“A Good Understanding,” a selection of choral pieces featuring the Master Chorale, is one of two new Muhly recordings on Decca meant to present the composer to the world at large. The other disc is a lengthy, perky dance score, “I Drink the Air Before Me,” which uses a small instrumental ensemble and the Young People’s Chorus of New York.

The Master Chorale release consists of several small sacred scores (the texts for the title piece are taken from Psalms 99 and 111) and poems by Whitman. Muhly can be a precious and facile composer, a showoff. His program notes, like the film scores, demonstrate that side of him. But Muhly also has a delicate touch, and when the sweet sounds of ethereal early music singing meets post-Minimalist rhythmic rapture, the music floats in its own special space.

Walt Disney Concert Hall, where the recording sessions took place, adds a deluxe ambiance, while the organ, brass, percussion and a string quartet, variously employed by Muhly, function as a kind of sonic illumination. A young composer begging attention couldn’t ask for anything more.