A Kind of Musical Koan: The Sound of Splendid Voices Singing
By Victoria Looseleaf
Long before the crashing chords and primal hummings that accompanied Stanley Kubrick’s apes, seen hurling bones skyward in 2001: A Space Odyssey and bolstered by the tympanic thrashings of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, there was…the voice. Over time, in fact, reams have been devoted to pondering the very nature – the essence – of the human voice.
Indeed, no less a composer than Strauss himself once said: “The human voice is the most beautiful instrument of all, but it is the most difficult to play.” Taking that a step further, poet Maya Angelou declared, “Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning.” And while ideas surrounding the nature of the voice have been analyzed, parsed and made metaphorical (consider the renowned playwright Jean Cocteau and his riveting 1966 drama, The Human Voice, which unfolds through a monologue acted by a luminous Ingrid Bergman), scribe Henry Wadsworth Longfellow likened the voice to nothing less than “the organ of the soul.”
But perhaps the most profound expression of the human voice is that found in song. The power, the glory and the unadulterated beauty of a cappella vocal music cannot be refuted, which is why this evening’s Master Chorale concert, “Almost A Cappella,” is a ravishing one. Celebrating the vitality of the current choral scene in Los Angeles and beyond – including David O’s world premiere, A Map of Los Angeles – these lush pieces offer a myriad of unforgettable soundscapes, all by living composers and many based in Los Angeles.
The concert’s centerpiece, A Map of Los Angeles, is the second pan-cultural installment of “LA is the World.” At 25 minutes, the six-movement work unites Mexican folk harp master Sergio “Checo” Alonso with the Chorale to capture a multi-faceted City of Angels. With 110 voices, an omnipresent harp, piano, acoustic bass and a pair of percussionists, the opus is set to a mostly non-verbal text. The harp, says O, is a metaphor for the streets of L.A., with three of the six movements (1, 3 and 5) parts of this so-called map and the work’s glue. Listen for an energetic motif in these movements – a repeated ostinato pattern that becomes the basis for the rhythmic elements (the “map”) that the singers also pass back and forth. The first movement is akin to minimalist Latin jazz fusion in which different soloists and small groups of singers give voice to what would be the bass, keyboards and horn sections of any Latin jazz combo or salsa band. When the motif returns in the third movement, the music is the equivalent of a fantasy bus ride (oxymoronic as that may sound). With shifting keys and patterns of dissonance woven throughout, these are sounds one might encounter while riding a bus through the nooks and crannies of Los Angeles, again with soloists and small vocal ensembles doing the honors. The fifth movement is textbook minimalism, a meditation during which the piano and marimba vamp, underscoring a series of rhythmically shifting vocal patterns. The even numbered movements (2, 4 and 6) are aural snapshots of L.A. landmarks, with the second featuring the singers in angelic choir mode in their referencing of Anaheim Stadium in this tongue-in cheek homage to that edifice. The fourth movement, “The The Tar Tar Pits,” showcases an exotic groove, with the harp plucking out a haunting melody of dualities. Representing the animals of the La Brea Tar Pits, these riffs are in a musical tug of war – flat low notes and sharp high notes struggling, as if from the animals’ point of view, all set against the singers simulating plaintive wails of trapped (and tarred) creatures. With the final movement, “El Cementerio Evergreen,” the harp, in nostalgic Mexican songlike mode, takes on the melody while the choir chants names found on the cemetery’s tombstones. The finale recalls the map motif in a richly textured overlapping of voices and harp glissandi, one that elevates the listener towards the heavens. A mesmerizing blend of melody, rhythmic pulsings, adroit vocal stylings and the cornucopia that is Los Angeles – including its people, cultures and history – this work is a rapturous musical portrait as seen through the eyes – and ears – of the provocative composer, David O.
Turning again to music by eminent Polish composer Henryk Górecki, who, with John Tavener and Arvo Pärt have been dubbed the trinity of “holy minimalism,” the Chorale harvests musical gold with Lobgesang. Scored for the unlikely combination of SATB and glockenspiel, this short song of praise begins with equally uncustomary double fortes before the slow, expressive tempo yields sonic bliss.
It is always a privilege to welcome Morten Lauridsen to the stage of Walt Disney Concert Hall, where tonight he collaborates as pianist in his 2005 song cycle, Nocturnes. Best known for O Magnum Mysterium (a commission for the Chorale, it’s been performed thousands of times since its 1994 premiere), Lauridsen set tonight’s score to texts by three poets. In the first, “Sa nuit d’Été (Its Summer Night),” the composer makes use of Rilke; the second, “Soneto de la Noche (Sonnet of the Night),” is for unaccompanied chorus and set to a Spanish poem by Chile’s Pablo Neruda; and James Agee supplies text for the third song, “Sure on this Shining Night.” The set closes with the newly composed epilogue, “Voici le soir” (Night Has Come), a setting of another poem by Rilke. With abundant imagery throughout, the cycle moves through moments of tranquility and animation, an overall mood of deep meditation that shoots straight for the heart.
Two Songs from the Kalender Röd (formerly Two Songs to Poems of Ann Jäderlund) (2000), Esa-Pekka Salonen’s first choral composition, was written to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Swedish Radio Choir. Performed by the Chorale in 2002 in its American premiere, the songs were also recorded by the ensemble on a disc paired with Philip Glass’s Itaipú. Intoxicating in the manner of late 20th-century modernism, with no definitive tonal core and numerous dissonant note clusters a textural delight, the songs have their own sensate quality not often heard in this style of music. With the text an unabashed riff on erotic love, replete with scarlet mouths, kissing and “shoulder skin soft flower,” these songs sparkle, seduce and satiate.
Another choral star is Eric Whitacre, whose first recording was named by American Record Guide as one of the top ten classical albums in 1997. Not bad for someone then in his late 20s and whose music the Los Angeles Times described as having “electric, chilling harmonies; works of unearthly beauty and imagination.” Sometimes described as the “anti- Tavener,” Whitacre nevertheless makes use of a biblical text in a kind of homage to Arvo Pärt in the emotion packed When David Heard (1999). Fond of unusual harmonies and never cloying, Whitacre builds interest with his use of ever-shifting chords that recall his pop/rock roots.
Pulitzer Prize-winner Steven Stucky, whose works range from large-scale orchestral compositions to solo piano pieces, has fashioned his austere Three New Motets for double choir, their varying tempi and dynamics voiced in rich chord clusters painting a serene, 10-minute portrait in memory of – and harkening back to – Thomas Tallis. Spiritual, profound and intensely moving, all of these vocal works will linger long after their final notes fade, once again providing musical nourishment to hungry souls.
Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning arts journalist and regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, La Opinión and Performances Magazine. In addition, she is the producer-host of the long-running cable access television show on the arts, “The Looseleaf Report.” This is her fourth season with the Los Angeles Master Chorale.