Review: L.A. Master Chorale vividly explores South American sound
Gabriela Lena Frank’s “The Singing Mountaineer” is fond, alluring music that sounds like a vivid memory of a place that doesn’t exist. It was written for the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Los Angeles-based Latin American folk/jazz ensemble Huayucaltia and given its world premiere at Walt Disney Concert Hall Sunday night as part of a program that focused on the choral music of Peru and Venezuela.
The South American sound is usually pretty easy to identify. And 10 of the 11 works that Master Chorale music director Grant Gershon selected easily fit that bill. But what was fascinating is that they fit the bill without sounding in any way alike. They spanned four centuries and displayed dizzying influences of Western plain chant, Andean folk music, the European avant-garde of the 1960s, Afro-Caribbean dance styles, Bartók and what not.
What was even more fascinating was how integral those influences became to larger styles. There was always — in all but that one case — a there, there.
Let’s dispense with the anomaly, Gutiérre Fernández Hidalgo’s Magnificat. This is conquistador music by a Spaniard who immigrated to the New World in 1580 and pushed Western plain chant and polyphony on the natives. He was a good composer, if an apparently unpleasant man.
A decade after Hidalgo’s death in 1620, stylistic mayhem had already set in. In “Hanacpachap Cussicuinin” (“The Happiness of the Upper World”), published in 1630 (the composer is uncertain), Inca percussion and liturgical imagery form a brotherly mix with Franciscan choral style.
These two works introduced Frank’s “Mountaineers.” She is an American, born in Berkeley of a Peruvian-Chinese mother, Lithuanian Jewish father. A member ofYo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, she explores music widely, but her own gravitates increasingly toward her inner Latina.
“Mountaineers” is a setting of poems by the 20th century Peruvian novelist José María Arguedas. “Where are you going?” the first one asks. There are images of a flute made of a fly’s bone, of a hummingbird carrying a lover’s longing letters. Leaving and returning, loss and distance are themes. The folklore of Quechua Indians of Peru is evoked in language and music.
Frank is most successful here when she is least grounded. Solo singers sometimes separated from the full choir and gave the impression of singing from other realms. Frank also proved at her most appealing when she asked the five members of Huayucaltia (guitars, panpipes and percussion are featured among dozens of other traditional instruments) to be less direct than they usually are, to employ their instruments experimentally.
A better sense of her treatment of language will have to wait for further performances –—unfortunately no texts were provided (although there were projected translations). But there was drama with the use of a narrator, bass Abdiel Gonzalez, who was stunning. Something for music theater would seem a very good next step for Frank.
The Venezuelan half of the program was intended to show the side of the country’s musical life that is not as well-known as its orchestral one. However, just as José Antonio Abreu built orchestras with his El Sistema movement, Spanish emigrant Alberto Grau has created a choral movement with Schola Cantorum de Caracas. That is now the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela and is headed by the volcanic conductor Maria Guinand.
The big discovery among the Venezuelan pieces was Antonio Estévez’s “Mata del Anima Sola (Tree of the Lonely Soul), which featured a gorgeously sung solo by tenor Pablo Corá. Estévez, who died in 1988, composed “Cantata Criolla,” which Gustavo Dudamel performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic two years ago. Here Estévez brilliantly combines a modern French style with native traditions, turning the chorus into a singing jungle.
Grau, also a composer, follows in that tradition. His “Kasar Mie la Gaji” (The Earth Is Tired), with an African text, is a powerful physical exploration of choral sound.
Along with a variety of lesser-known Venezuelans (including Guinand) and one Ecuadorean, the program featured the two short sections of Cristian Grases’ “Visiones del Llano” (Visions of the Plains). A young Venezuelan choral conductor and composer who teaches at USC, he wrote these works after immigrating to the U.S., nostalgic for his home. More fond, alluring music these, but, unlike Frank, also nostalgic for a more easily captured time and place.
The Master Chorale was kept on its toes, what with styles, languages and vocal inventions ever changing. Gershon, though, managed to covey what was special about each. For “Kasar,” Gershon joined the tenors and turned the chorus over to its associate conductor, Lesley Leighton.
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