Most people associate choirs with churches and traditional, sacred music but the Los Angeles Master Chorale defies the “choir” stereotype as it leads audience members on a musical journey. LAMC is an integral part of the city; cited by the Los Angeles Times as “a major cultural asset,” the choir is currently in its 49th season. Far from resting on its laurels, LAMC is constantly changing and growing.
Under the direction of USC Thornton School of Music graduate Grant Gershon, LAMC has been called “the nation’s, and maybe the world’s, most innovative choral group” on the CultureSpotLA blog. Gershon graduated cum laude from Thornton with a bachelor’s in piano performance and currently serves on the USC Thornton Board of Advisors. Gershon credits his experience at USC with helping to shape his self-proclaimed “eclectic” musical tastes. As a student, Gershon participated in a rock band, various jazz ensembles and USC’s Chamber Singers.
Gershon advises students to “get out there and create opportunities,” conceding that as a student there are times when you “fall on your face” but that the experience is worthwhile and enriching. Though LAMC does not offer formal programs for USC students, Gershon feels there is a “natural” connection between USC’s Chamber Singers and LAMC. Aside from his personal connection, many other chorale members are also former Chamber Singers.
LAMC is dedicated to sharing music, the Times states that “while other organizations focus on performing and listening, LAMC helps kids create and collaborate.” The “Voices Within” program gives local fifth and sixth graders the access to musical professionals who help them create and perform original compositions for a live audience. LAMC is also involved with high school students through the Walt Disney Hall High School Choral Festival. Instead of a traditional choral completion, the students form one choir, which Gershon feels is a testament to the unifying power of song and the universality of music.
In keeping with the idea of sharing music, audience members have the opportunity to attend the Listen Up! pre-concert talk and to gain a deeper understanding of the performance they are about to experience. Gershon explained the concert’s theme of “ascension” and illustrated his points with the piano and his voice. He said he felt passionate about the music and “really lucky” to be able to “choose the music that he loves.” Gershon said the audience is becoming “less musically conservative” in that they “expect the unexpected at LAMC concerts.”
The Master Chorale’s premiere did not disappoint. The Walt Disney Concert Hall organ accompanied the chorale as it performed a mix of modern and traditional pieces in the English Cathedral style.
The Chorale opened triumphantly with a traditional selection, “God is Gone Up” by Gerald Finzi. Besides making a grand entrance, this piece presented the sonorous rumblings of the concert hall’s grand organ.
Next, the Chorale performed Nico Muhly’s “Bright Mass with Canons.” The canons created textual overlap and close harmonies. The piece mirrored a church mass in its structure as well as its sound; Muhly used grand chords and cascading voices to make a sonic picture of a cathedral.
After the impressive “Bright Mass,” the chorale transitioned to “Beatitudes.” Unlike the previous piece, the text, not the music was the focus. The chorale used a darker, more meditative sound that allowed listeners to connect with the text of the beatitudes.
Paul Mealor’s “Ubi Caritas” provide a refreshing break from the introspective “Beatitudes.” Mealor’s piece, a modern composition of the traditional “Ubi Caritas,” debuted at Prince William and Kate Middleton’s royal wedding. His arrangement provided complex layers of sound so that the audience hardly noticed the lack of accompaniment. A delicate solo by the Los Angeles Children’s Choir tempered the full and regal sound of the chorale. “Ubi Caritas” seemed to be an audience favorite, bringing members to their feet.
In keeping with the spirit, the chorale finished the first act with Sir Hubert Parry’s “I Was Glad.” This piece provided a joyously thundering close to the first act.
After the intermission, the Los Angeles Children’s Choir joined the Master Chorale to perform Nico Muhly’s “A Good Understanding.” This piece featured sustained treble notes and wove the children’s voices into a rich tapestry with the Master Chorale. Afterward, the children’s choir performed “Psalm 150” on their own. This short piece showcased light, bouncing melodies, fitting for younger voices.
The Master chorale returned and treated listeners to Tarik O’Regan’s “Dorchester Canticles.” In addition to the organ, the “Canticles” included harp and percussion accompaniment. This soaring and robust piece truly highlighted the masterful blending and precise intonation of the chorale.
Kurt Weill’s “Kiddush,” described as a “palate cleanser” by Gershon, broke from the English cathedral theme. Originally commissioned by the Park Avenue temple in New York, this selection featured a solo tenor cantor as well as Hebrew text and lively accompaniment. The chorale’s emotional performance sounded inviting and smooth as velvet.
The chorale returned to the concert’s theme of ascension with Judith Weir’s “Ascending into Heaven.” Described as “equal parts lightness, wisdom and imagination” this selection left listeners floating. It highlighted the chorale’s vocal control through sweeping glissandos and dynamic changes. Like a swirling mass of clouds, the voices soared and swooped into the heavens, ending with a rumbling organ chord.
The chorale included an encore performance of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” This melodic and hopeful piece contrasted with the more abstract “Ascending into Heaven” and provided the perfect close to the Master Chorale’s performance.
LAMC, under the direction of Gershon, took listeners on a soaring musical journey. The upward motion of the selections truly fit the theme of ascension and highlighted the chorale’s versatility, proving that choirs can be innovative and that even traditional music is not static.