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John Adams' operatic essence and Stravinsky's inner pagan revealed through pianos and chorus

John Adams' operatic essence and Stravinsky's inner pagan revealed through pianos and chorus
Soloists, from left, Elissa Johnston, Niké St. Clair, Todd Strange and Nicholas Brownlee perform Stravinsky's "Les Noces" with the Los Angeles Master Chorale at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Sunday. (Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times)

You cannot glimpse, let alone know, what is going on in the head of a paranoid American president without some sense of the voices infecting his imagination. The same is true of terrorists and their victims. It's true for J. Robert Oppenheimer as he led the Manhattan Project team developing the atomic bomb. It's true, for that matter, of Jesus and his disciples.

This is the subject matter of John Adams' operas and oratorios — Nixon's trip to China, the Middle East situation, weapons of mass destruction, the ineffable notion of divinity and the neglected role of women in the Christ story. In all these musical cases, the choruses create meaning.

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They are the weather. They are memories. They are dreams. They are fears. They are history. They are the governors of emotion.

Obviously, then, it is a good idea to pay attention to the choruses during the composer's widely celebrated 70th birthday season, and no ensemble is better positioned for that than the Los Angeles Master Chorale. It dedicated the first half of its Sunday night program at Walt Disney Concert Hall to premieres of new piano accompaniments for choruses from five of Adams' music theater works.

Not only has the Master Chorale worked with Adams more than any other chorus but its music director, Grant Gershon, is also unique among Adams' conductors. He also happens to be a noted Adams pianist. The two-piano "Hallelujah Junction," a work Adams considers one of his finest, was written for Gershon and Gloria Cheng.

There was even the occasion when Gershon sang the leading role in the Adams-Peter Sellars art musical, "I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky." At the dress rehearsal for the New York premiere, a singer came down with laryngitis, so Gershon sang the part while conducting, and the singer acted onstage. It was brilliant. (Plácido Domingo might have made sensational news Saturday night had he attempted the same thing at Los Angeles Opera, instead of ineffectively entombing a substitute singer in the orchestra pit for "The Tales of Hoffmann.")

Gershon is also the editor of Chitose Okashiro's new piano versions of the orchestral accompaniments for Adams' choruses. The idea here has been to come up with something that reflects Adams' piano style, unlike the rudimentary reductions that are used for rehearsal purposes.

To try out the first batch, Gershon came up with the idea of using a sequence of four pianists who have a connection to Adams, the Master Chorale or both. With four pianists and a chorus on hand, you then cannot not perform "Les Noces," one of Stravinsky's most radical and influential scores but rarely heard in concert because it needs those four pianos along with a sizable battery of percussion. That became the second half of the evening.

Okashiro seems to have done a quite good job of sexing up these accompaniments, channeling Adams' keyboard flavor if not quite his flair. But you need that flair full time to stand up to a large chorus belting at full volume. You also need a pianist skilled at projecting on the concert stage, not one who is ideal for rehearsal.

Consequently, some of the old choruses work better in new bottles than others, and some of the pianists, though all capable, worked better than the others. The choruses from "The Death of Klinghoffer" proved especially effective, in part because the choral writing itself is subtly eloquent, even when violent, but also because Cheng and Vicki Ray have the most experience with Adams as concert pianists.

In the choruses of exiled Palestinians and exiled Jews, Ray's lush tone was like applying aloe vera on the raw nerves of the two sides, who share a poetic and spiritual character they find such difficulty in recognizing in the other. Cheng brought mystery to the "Desert" Chorus and an unforgiving light to the "Day" Chorus, conveying the lure of the land, without a sense of which there is no fathoming the Middle East.

Master Chorale pianist Lisa Edwards accompanied two choruses from "The Gospel According to the Other Mary," which were written for the ensemble. She clearly knows how they go, but they are big pieces, and she was not well heard. Nor was Bryan Pezzone, who accompanied "At the Sight of This" (the chorus evoking the nuclear bomb test in "Doctor Atomic") and "Cheers!" from "Nixon in China." But these are choruses difficult for any single piano to be heard.

What we needed was all four at once, as "Les Noces" proved when the four pianists got Disney Hall ringing so fruitfully that I couldn't get the wondrous sonorities out of my head for hours afterward.

This was a gripping performance of a work more pagan than even "Rite of Spring." Four vocal soloists (Elissa Johnston, Niké St. Clair, Todd Strange and Nicholas Brownlee) represent members of a Russian peasant wedding party. They and the chorus, all singing in Russian, suggest the bride's squeals from the forced brushing of her hair as symbol of anxiety, the ritualistic religious ceremony, the wildly celebratory feast and the way to bed.

Stravinsky's rhythms are insistent. There is never, over the half hour, repose. The forces of nature and tradition turn individuals into a collective. The ending is unforgettable, with the pianos ringing, ringing, ringing. Under Gershon, the soloists, pianists, percussionists and chorus missed nothing.

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