American choral music concerts once meant a menu of cowboy songs, folk songs, spirituals -- comfortable campfire stuff. They mean something quite different to Grant Gershon and today’s Los Angeles Master Chorale.
Sunday night’s edition, the concluding concert of the Master Chorale’s 49th season and a prelude to its 50th, looked like another of Gershon’s iPod programs -- a satchel of things “from the last century and literally last week” (in Gershon’s words), from the comfortable to the edgy.
“Last week” referred to “Plath Songs,” a new song cycle by the Master Chorale’s composer-in-residence (and section tenor) Shawn Kirchner, based on the quirky, sometimes painful poetry of Sylvia Plath. The cycle isn’t complete -- one movement, “Tulips,” is unfinished -- but the six movements that were ready for this first performance consisted of a half-hour of wildly varied choral textures colored by piano and a battery of percussion instruments played one at a time.
The original American champion of quirkiness, Charles Ives, was represented by his marvelous “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven,” with pianist Lisa Edwards pounding out the crunching clusters and everyone participating in a brief, grand Ivesian pile-on near the end.
Barber’s “Agnus Dei” demonstrated how much mileage a canny composer can get out of one inspired idea, as this was really the good old Adagio for Strings in well-fitting ecclesiastical robes.
Elliott Carter’s 1937 “Tarantella” was his first published piece -- thoroughly tonal but with a rollicking vigor and hints of his grinding complexity to come. Eric Whitacre’s “Three Songs Of Faith” abounded with his luscious, densely packed harmonies, and Abbie Betinis’ “Songs of Smaller Creatures” was most notable for the movement that imitated the sound of buzzing bees.
Ultimately, Gershon dialed the iPod onto traditional ground with four spirituals -- robust and clear in diction -- and the encore, “Shenandoah,” sent us back to the type of Americana that Master Chorale founder Roger Wagner knew.
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