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Review: Hope and despair find balance in the Master Chorale performance of ‘Songs of Ascent’ and Mozart’s ‘Requiem’

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A side view of the Los Angeles Master Chorale in Walt Disney Concert Hall during Mozart’s “Requiem in D Minor.”
(Patrick Brown)

In spring 1978, 8-year-old Shawn Kirchner experienced his first bolt of musical inspiration.

All around him the long, cold Iowan winter was thawing. To celebrate, he wrote a song. Titled “In the Spring,” it is a cheerful little piece in C Major that bubbles with optimism and springtime clichés about blooming flowers and bird nests.

On Saturday afternoon, 40 years later and an hour before the Los Angeles Master Chorale opened its 55th season with his song cycle, “Songs of Ascent,” Kirchner sat down at the piano and performed “In the Spring” for a sizable crowd gathered for a pre-concert talk in Walt Disney Concert Hall’s BP Hall.

This small piece offered insight into Kirchner’s compositional impulses, which gravitate toward the sublime, the harmonious, the joyous, the beautiful and the peaceful.

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Themes that radiate from the chorus, harp and string orchestra in “Songs of Ascent.”

Perhaps a little too much, at least initially, as Kirchner decided after the Los Angeles Master Chorale gave the world premiere of the piece in 2015. He had composed some sublime music, but with no angst or conflict to balance it, he worried the piece was too saccharin.

And so he reworked it, and this past weekend the Chorale presented Kirchner’s expanded, revised version.

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The text of “Songs of Ascent” comes from a series of biblical Psalms, including Kirchner’s grandmother’s favorite (Psalm 121). Raised in the pacifist Church of the Brethren, the composer had at first avoided some of the text’s more aggressive, militaristic passages. In the process of revising, however, he discovered that inserting a little warmongering, toxic masculinity into the middle of his piece provided exactly the sort of darker yin “Ascent” needed to balance its cheery yang.

On Saturday, this juxtaposition was illustrated poignantly through the piece’s soloists. Standing on opposite sides of Disney Hall stage, smooth-voiced tenor Robert Norman and the forceful baritone Abdiel Gonzalez faced off and belted out their identical but opposing positions: God is on my side. Not yours.

Kirchner counters and resolves this tension through feminine voices, often presented by the chorus but most notably on Saturday portrayed by the breathtakingly talented young soprano Liv Redpath, whose impeccably placed high notes bloomed radiantly throughout the hall.

“Songs of Ascent” is thoughtfully and lovingly crafted, with intricate textures and a symmetrical form. It is also relatively conservative. Rather than push boundaries through experimentation or innovation, this piece offers an ascent into the familiar aesthetic territory of lush choral harmonies.

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Composer Shawn Kirchner, left, and Grant Gershon rehearsing “Songs of Ascent” for its world premiere in 2015.
(Courtesy of the Los Angeles Master Chorale)

It is a lovely place to sit. But everything that goes up must come down. And so the Chorale smartly balanced Kirchner’s hopeful “Ascent” with the brooding, ominous power of Mozart’s “Requiem in D Minor.”

Mozart was 35 and dying when he composed the requiem. Contrary to centuries of speculation, lore and the plot of the Oscar-winning 1984 movie “Amadeus,” he probably was not poisoned by a bitter rival. In fact, researchers say, the young composer’s rapid deterioration and death was more likely the result of a strep infection.

It’s a mundane cause of death, but no less tragic. Had he lived a century and a half later, a dose of penicillin might have given Mozart the opportunity to celebrate his 36th birthday and finish the Requiem he left incomplete when he died on Dec. 5, 1791 (the Chorale performed the standard version completed by Mozart’s student, Franz Xaver Süssmeyr).

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Like a deathbed confession, “Requiem” feels urgent. It opens with strings pulsing like a heartbeat under a sublimely sorrowful melody. Within 10 minutes, listeners are plunged into the booming depths of the Dies irae. On Saturday afternoon, Master Chorale artistic director Grant Gershon used those opening pulsations to propel the action of the piece forward with dramatic intensity, which he maintained tautly throughout without once rushing the end of a phrase.

Recently, Gershon has been busy conducting modern operas –– he directed the world premiere of John Adams’ “Girls of the Golden West” last year at San Francisco Opera and next month he’ll be in the Los Angeles Opera pit conducting Philip Glass’ “Satyagraha”. On Saturday he brought a contemporary operatic theatricality to Mozart’s “Requiem.”

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Baritone Rod Gilfry, left, Master Chorale artistic director Grant Gershon, mezzo soprano J’Nai Bridges, soprano Liv Redpath and tenor David Portillo.
(Patrick Brown)

These dramatic impulses were supported by Gershon’s well-rehearsed Chorale, which flexed its muscles, showing off technical agility and infusing energy into each perfectly synced release.

Redpath, again, was stunning in her seemingly effortless ability to conjure pristine high notes. Mezzo soprano J’Nai Bridges countered with gorgeously projected, rich tones. Along with tenor David Portillo and baritone Rod Gilfry, the quartet delivered opera stage-worthy drama without any costumes or choreography.

If Mozart had been given the gift of time, perhaps he, like Kirchner, would’ve tweaked his composition. If he hadn’t been so sick while he composed it, maybe he would’ve balanced the Requiem’s stormy drama with more hope. But at 35, riddled by an infection that left his body feverish and bloated, he had too much to say, and too little time in which to say it. And so he left us with hope and angst, joy and sorrow, and an epic, dramatic take on both life and death.


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