A Grand Finale — And a Brand New Start
By Thomas May
Throughout this fiftieth anniversary season, the Los Angeles Master Chorale has spanned the entire gamut not only of its own history but of the enduring choral art that is its raison d’être: from the cornerstones of the repertoire (including its Mount Everest, Bach’s B minor Mass) to the voices of composers today. And it is these composers, creating from their experience of a contemporary reality we all share, who are shaping, rethinking, and adding to that tradition. So when Music Director Grant Gershon and colleagues were deciding on the most effective content for the grand finale, it made beautiful sense to devote an entire program to new music.
As last year’s world premiere of Plath Songs amply demonstrated, Master Chorale composer in residence Shawn Kirchner knows how to tap into a deep love for and understanding of poetry to inform an ambitious musical concept. The English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) became the poetic “guru” for his new Master Chorale commission because of his reverence for nature, which Kirchner found reflected in Hopkins’s innovative image- and rhythm-rich poems. Moreover, through a close reading of Hopkins, Kirchner discovered some subtle connections to a recent musical focus on Beethoven and his piano sonatas. Kirchner, an accomplished pianist, has been working through all of the Beethoven sonatas over the past year.
“I began to marvel at what a nature mystic Hopkins is,” says Kirchner. Hopkins, a Catholic convert who frequently interprets particulars of nature as spiritual symbols — his sensibility is in some ways comparable to Messiaen — tends to put “a theological spin” on his wonder, says Kirchner, “because he had such a theological framework built into his perception.” But what Kirchner finds of widespread appeal in this body of work is Hopkins’s sense of the intrinsic meaning of nature and “objects” we encounter in the world. “According to this way of looking at the world, you don’t perceive a tree as a source of lumber but as a being in itself.”
For his cycle of four settings of Hopkins’s poems for a cappella double choir, Kirchner chose the title Inscapes — a term Hopkins introduced in his theoretical discussions of poetry — to reflect the centrality of this idea. “He came from a family of painters and was actually quite sensate in his perceptions of things because he was trained as a painter. Eleanor Ruggles, who wrote one of the definitive biographies of Hopkins, describes the inscape as the manifestation of Being itself. So in the whole cycle I’m trying to connect with that level of awe in perceiving a part of nature, a tree or a kingfisher. These aren’t just pretty pictures of nature; they’re all part of the ‘royal perception’ of the intrinsic patterns of being.”
And that in turn harmonized with Kirchner’s passion for the environment. “I’m a total tree fanatic and had a profound experience on a road trip to old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest.” As for the Beethoven connection, he explains that his close attention to the sonatas while he was formalizing the commission inspired the essential structural idea for the piece. On one level Inscapes can be described as a “choral sonata” cast in four movements, “with grander gestures for the opening and closing movements, a scherzo, and a slow movement.”
Moreover, Beethoven’s ingenious process of transforming motifs, revealing ever-new and unexpected layers and combinations inherent within a seemingly simple musical germ cell is a topic of endless admiration for Kirchner. And he even likens Hopkins to the composer: “I really do think that Hopkins and Beethoven correspond in terms of the force of the ideas they are working with and the force of their own connection to their materials. There’s a shared sense of organic flow of the work itself. Hopkins brings late Beethoven to mind in the way he works with the sonnet but stretches and breaks the form.”
The first movement, “The Windhover,” includes imitations of bell sounds and introduces the cycle’s characteristic harmonic language, with intervals that appear in the whole-tone scale recurring as a unifying element. “It suggests that extra space of becoming,” observes Kirchner, “that expands beyond our minds’ diatonic expectations.” Hopkins’s language proved especially challenging to set here. “As a composer, my job is to be responsive to the text but also to craft a choral piece that is organic and cohesive and makes sense to the listener on its own.”
“Inversnaid,” the briefest movement, has the structural position of a playful scherzo and brings the environmentalist angle of Kirchner’s inspiration to the fore: “What would the world be, once bereft/Of wet and wildness?” Kirchner elucidates: “Behind the whole of Inscapes is the idea of the value of things in themselves, not as objects.” A sense of mystery and even “the sinister quality of wilderness” also belong to his musical conception. Then follows the slow movement, “Binsley Poplars,” which is also tied to the sense of a specific place and which is even more obviously linked to the idea of preservation. In recalling how some beloved trees in Oxford were felled, Hopkins writes “an elegy for what is lost.”
“As kingfishers catch fire” — one of Hopkins’s most famous poems — returns to the larger scale of the first movement, including a developmental section for its thematic ideas. This is the first music that Kirchner composed for the cycle. “I heard an extremely strong internal drum, like a heartbeat. Hopkins gives me so many luscious sounds to work with. The text is a feast in and of itself.” Kirchner adds that his vocal writing in general for Inscapes is “less contrapuntal than I usually compose because I want the texts be heard and to be enjoyed by the singers.”
Music lovers who had the pleasure of attending April’s Master Chorale program (“Minimalist Masterworks”) experienced the unforgettable emotional impact of the little match girl passion firsthand. In the wake of creating this harrowingly intimate contemporary meditation on the Passion tradition, David Lang wanted to write something that wasn’t related to religion at all. “little match girl was specifically about what it’s like to deal with the history of religious music,” he explains. “After all, the church is an environment in which people are already used to singing. There’s a glorious tradition related to music of the church. But I started thinking about how we all join in to sing in a secular context when we sing national anthems in different countries. What does that mean — the idea that we believe it keeps us together as a nation?”
And so for his Master Chorale commission Lang hit on the idea of researching every national anthem in the world — and culling lines from them to craft a text of his own, much as he wrote his own libretto for little match girl. “I decided to extract the most hopeful statement from each of the anthems of every country in the United Nations. But I was shocked when I realized that most of these national anthems are really violent and terrifying. I pulled out the most interesting sentence from each national anthem. It scared me that when we want to be known as a country, it’s as a people who wield a sword or as a people who plant our crops in fields watered by the blood of our ancestors. So many national anthems are litanies about the horrible struggle needed to get to this point of being a nation — and the struggle often isn’t over.”
In death speaks, which Lang wrote in 2012 as a companion piece to little match girl, he applied a similar textual principle by culling all of Schubert’s songs in which death is named as a character. For the national anthems, “I thought that if I just found out what the ideal person was hoping that their nation would do for them and took one sentence expressing this, I could make a kind of meta-anthem of all the hopes and dreams that everyone in the world would share. What is it that we all have in common? But it took a while to figure that out because I didn’t want to seem aggressive or warlike or ironic. It would be too easy to imagine a fake march and make it merely about politics.”
When he arrived at the resulting composite text for the national anthems, says Lang, he found it moving in the way it reflects “how people build nations because they’re afraid. They live in fear of their neighbors and of the horrible things that happened to them in the past. The subtext of messages like ‘we threw off our chains’ is more important: ‘We were in chains once: please don’t do that to us again.’ So I came to realize that these texts were not boasts about accomplishments but a catalogue of fears.” the national anthems text ends with a phrase signifying “the thing that unifies all of them,” the presence of nature and external forces that lie beyond our control: “may the rains fall.”
the national anthems is intended to be heard as if it were an actual anthem being sung. Scoring his work for a cappella choir and string quartet, Lang made a conscious decision to compose “something that everyone can conceivably sing, from start to finish,” limiting himself to a range of just over an octave. (The U.S. national anthem, he adds, is of course an exception to the rule of universal singability by virtue of its unusual range, which makes it harder for the general public to manage.)
Lang imagined the music itself “as a person actually singing this.” What happens to the contours and textures of the anthem as it unfolds over the course of some 25 minutes reflects “what the world feels like around that person.” Voices “defect” from the ongoing melody and the string quartet contributes its own commentary, with the result that “there are moments that seem either to support or challenge or extend the anthem. I wrote the one throughline from start to finish and then went back and added and distorted things around the line. So there are sections that become quite dense and contrapuntal, including a moment where the tune actually disappears. There are also little refrains that get woven in.”
Lang remarks that in contrast to the “depressing” character of the little match girl passion, he was eager to write something with an entirely different tone for his Master Chorale commission. “I’ve been really lucky to work with Grant on a couple of things and was so impressed by what the singers did with little match girl passion. I’ve enjoyed getting closer to them and wanted to give them something that would be both unusual and fun for them and that would push them in a different direction.”
Both the “tomorrow” and the “beyond” perspectives of our program are the focus of the new commission Es Tu Tiempo by Francisco J. Núñez. Indeed, the MacArthur (“genius”) Award-winning Núñez has devoted his career to encouraging the vision and spirit of the young generation — the people who will naturally interpret the musical traditions handed on to them according to their own experiences, transforming this legacy in unpredictable ways.
“I’ve been working with young people for some time,” says Núñez, who founded the highly regarded Young People’s Chorus of New York City in 1988 (when he himself was only 23) and who has also worked closely with the Dominican Republic to build a national children’s choral movement. “The very concept of classical music and who is listening has been changing rapidly.
We say classical music is influencing others, but people who have been invisible before are influencing it as well. We’re in the middle of a beginning and an end. New music is being written by young people of all kinds of backgrounds.”
So when thinking of how to approach his new piece — a commission by the Master Chorale for the 25th Annual High School Choir Festival (which gave the world premiere last month) — Núñez decided he wanted to represent the perspective of young people. Es Tu Tiempo reflects “what high school youths might want to sing about. I thought they would like a piece that’s serious and fun at the same time and that represents all aspects of life in Los Angeles.”
The result is a brief piece for mixed chorus and percussion, piano, and electric bass — incorporating high school voices in this performance — that takes as its theme the rite of passage as high schoolers prepare to move on to the next station in their lives. The lyrics, which Núñez also wrote, convey the special sense of self that makes this such an exciting milestone for young people — but also a vulnerable time of transition. “They love getting older and leaving their own legacy for the youngsters behind them. In Es Tu Tiempo they express their feelings of going on to become adults, while reminiscing. There’s also a feeling of loss, of knowing that these experiences they’ve shared while growing up will never happen again. And they’re now telling the youngsters who will come after them that everything will be OK, no matter what happens on this journey.”
In setting this perspective to music, Núñez explains that he wanted to evoke a variety of styles to mirror the diversity of Los Angeles. “All of these blend together with a constant flow of rhythmic energy that takes account of the proximity to Latin America. There’s a feeling of an indie songwriter at the beginning, soft pop, and then an Andean-tinged South American rhythm becomes part of it. Along with a gospel sound, I also allude to the sound of a Native American pan flute, which becomes a reminiscence of a sadness in the exuberant yell of the chorus.”
While Gabriela Lena Frank, who has been a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, has been likened to a “musical anthropologist” on account of her multicultural range of interests and inspirations, she jokes that the recordings of indigenous music she has made while traveling in Latin America are “laughably bad.” In the same extensive interview for newmusicbox with Yolanda O’Bannon, Frank adds that she doesn’t like the term “musical anthropologist” because “I have too much respect for those people.” Moreover, it implies a kind of literalism that certainly doesn’t apply to works like Los Cantores de las Montañas (“The Singing Mountaineers”), which was given its world premiere by the Master Chorale two years ago. Reviewing the new piece on that occasion in The Los Angeles Times, Mark Swed observed that this is “fond, alluring music that sounds like a vivid memory of a place that doesn’t exist.”
The Bay Area-based composer also notes that she’s sometimes mistakenly described as a native Perúvian, even though “I’m a gringa” who was born in the United States and who first visited Perú at the age of 27. (Her mother is a Perúvian of Chinese descent, while her father is an American of Lithuanian-Jewish heritage.) Although Perú “is a tangential country for me,” explains Frank in her newmusicbox interview, “it’s where I find a lot of answers” and “something that has always held a lot of mystery for me growing up.”
Los Cantores represents one of her creative responses to this culture. Written for eight-part choir and narrator, Andean winds, percussion and guitars, the score comprises six sections, including a few entirely instrumental sections. For her texts Frank turned to the poetry of José María Arguedas (1911-1969), whom Frank describes as “a literary hero of mine.”
Arguedas, Frank writes, was a “great folklorist, poet, and advocate of the indigenous peoples of Perú. In an attempt to validate the native culture of the Andes, Arguedas spent most of his life collecting the tunes, poetry, and folklore of the Quechua Indians, the descendants of the ancient Incas. A proponent of ‘mestizaje,’ he spoke of a multicultural brotherhood of people, proclaiming himself a modern Quechua man in spite of his fair skin and Western education. He also pointed to the beauty and lyricism of indigenous poetry, frequently translating it from Quechua into Spanish for a wider audience.”
Frank uses some of the latter, anonymous poems in Los Cantores, which takes its title from The Singing Mountaineers: Songs and Tales of the Quechua People, an anthology of poetry that Arguedas wrote or collected (and translated into English by Ruth Walgreen Stephan). The music Frank composed “reflects a fusion of both western and traditional Peruvian instrumental/vocal techniques.”
Frank has dedicated her composition to Music Director Grant Gershon and the members of Huayucaltia. Their own name derives from a Nahuatl word for “kinship” and reflects the ensemble’s instrumental fusion of Andean, African, jazz, rock, and classical styles. Gershon notes that Frank spent lots of time working with the musicians “to look for untapped potential from these instruments, so that there are more than the expected folk sounds.” The resulting musical idiom, while diatonic and modal, features writing for the singers that Gershon describes as “very virtuosic and personal.” The overall character of the work, meanwhile, is “mysterious and wistful, with strong dance rhythms from the highlands.”
In the half decade since he left his position as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic — where, as Alex Ross noted in a New Yorker profile, he became “a driving force in American music” — Esa-Pekka Salonen has been making good on his decision to devote more time to composing. It’s hard to imagine a more auspicious harbinger for this stage of his career than the breathtaking Violin Concerto which Salonen composed for Leila Josefowicz and unveiled in this very hall toward the end of his final season with the LA Phil five years ago.
For his concerto Salonen received the University of Louisville’s Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition in 2012, and this past March he garnered the biennial Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Music Composition from Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music, which honors “contemporary composers of outstanding achievement who have significantly influenced the field of composition.”
Tonight brings the birth of the latest composition from Salonen. “I wasn’t a chorister growing up in Finland,” he says, “but was an instrumentalist from early on. I came to choral music later.” Iri da iri is Salonen’s second work for a cappella chorus, following a setting of the poetry of the contemporary Finnish writer Ann Jäderlund (Two Songs from Kalender Röd from 2000). He approached the commission to write Iri da iri as a special occasion that “is very personal for me — more so than usual.” Salonen has enjoyed a long-term friendship with Grant Gershon, having been impressed by his gifts early on in his tenure with the LA Phil in the 1990s, when he first became aware of Gershon. “I realized then that he is extraordinarily talented,” remarks Salonen, adding that he found it deeply touching to be commissioned to write a piece directly by the singers of the Master Chorale.
It’s been argued that the apocalyptic torments of hell are more inspiring for an artist than visions of paradise — the meme that “happiness writes white” — and that bias probably explains why Dante’s Paradiso has tended to get short shrift in comparison with his Inferno and Purgatorio. Yet Salonen found the very last section of this third and concluding part of Dante’s epochal Divine Comedy fascinating both in its poetic structure and in its representation of a singular vision that transcends any particular religion, taking on a universal perspective instead.
“It goes beyond the religious,” explains Salonen. “After the poet has met the top management of heaven and comes to the innermost circle of the cosmos, at that point the expression somehow changes. The word ‘god’ isn’t even mentioned anymore, and it goes beyond the personal. At the end Dante has to admit that the only thing he knows is that love is what makes all of this — the planets and stars, the whole cosmos — work.”
Salonen was also attracted by Dante’s command of meter and the interlocking rhyming structure of his three-line stanzas (terza rima). “It works very well in music because it allows you to build chain-like forms” instead of proceeding in a “simple linear way.” He points out that because Dante’s images are so “mystical and complex” he decided not to try to illustrate the text musically (the age-old device of “madrigalism”). Salonen wanted the words being sung to be understandable and therefore for the most part follows the natural rhythms as they would be spoken in Italian. At the same time, “there are a couple sections where the text dissolves into atoms,” evoking for him images of “planets and nebulae” and suggesting a sense of “cosmic movement.”
The result is that Salonen’s musical setting of Iri da iri involves “a kind of dualism between using the language as a tool for communication and using it in some cases as material. Sometimes the music moves rather rhythmically and in a more songlike, linear way but there are more densely contrapuntal moments when it follows the laws of the cosmos, as it were, rather than the laws of the language.” He offers still another metaphoric image for the musical process Dante’s visionary language inspired: “It’s like milk being poured into a jar full of water, when you then see how the whiteness of the milk blends with the transparency of the water. On some level it’s very simple if you look at it from a distance; but if you look at it close up, you see the incredible complexity of the individual molecules and the unpredictable way the two liquids fuse.”
— Thomas May, program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, writes about the arts and blogs at memeteria.com.