A CHORAL RENAISSANCE: L.A. AS EPICENTER
A couple of months ago, Angelenos were treated to a concert by a chamber ensemble known as The Golden Bridge (whose singers include some members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale). Led by Suzi Digby, Lady Eatwell OBE, and true to its name, the ensemble links two golden ages of choral music: Tudor England and the remarkable choral creativity now flourishing in California — particularly in the Los Angeles region.
Tonight’s program taps into the vein of high-karat gold that enriches cultural life here, featuring a diverse cross-section of L.A.-based composers. The region has become what Master Chorale Artistic Director Grant Gershon calls “a hotbed for composers who write beautifully and evocatively for the human voice.”
“Made in L.A.” refers both to tonight’s program and to the multi-year artistic initiative it launches, which will foster this growing group of remarkable composers. “I wanted to highlight artists who have a long and meaningful history with the Chorale alongside composers who are new to our audience,” explains Gershon. “There is an emerging generation of composers who are exploring vocal music with great imagination and flair.”
“Paul Chihara and Morten Lauridsen began writing music for the Master Chorale decades ago and are both still very much part of our family. The terrifically gifted Shawn Kirchner, our most recent composer in residence, is joined by his fellow tenor in the Chorale Matthew Brown, whose music is being performed by ensembles all over the world these days. Moira Smiley, Dale Trumbore and Nilo Alcala are each brilliantly talented creative artists whose works I have long admired. And Jeff Beal is, in a sense, the consummate Angeleno artist — equally eloquent in the concert hall and in the ‘Industry.’”
Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943), himself a leading figure of the contemporary choral Renaissance, believes “we’re living in a golden time for choral music.” As composer in residence with the Master Chorale from 1995 to 2001, he had an opportunity to work closely with former artistic director Paul Salamunovich, for whose 70th birthday Lauridsen wrote his setting of the Ave Maria in 1997. “I miss Paul dearly,” remarks Lauridsen, whose website shares his story of visiting Salamunovich in the hospital shortly before the legendary conductor’s death in 2014. “This music was my gift to Paul, but I hope it will remind the audience about what a gift Paul was to all of us.”
Largely written with eight-part textures, Ave Maria is a motet calling for a large chorus with many divisi sections and with a special focus on “the rich sonorities of the divided men’s sections,” says the composer. “The melodic material has as its roots chant-like lines in Gregorian style which, of course, was one of Paul’s areas of expertise. He built this pyramid of sound with the men at the base of it.”
Ave Maria is of longer duration than the composer’s other self-standing motets and shows off the capabilities of a large, highly polished choir. “I wanted to evoke the consonant purity of Palestrina or Josquin, to get the kind of rich sound that Paul was after on the more serene, meditative works I wrote for him, so the harmonic language here is more direct.”
Two recordings that include the Ave Maria, which were made by Salamunovich and the Master Chorale and by Polyphony conducted by Stephen Layton, were both nominated for Grammy Awards.
For a veteran composer like Jeff Beal (b. 1963), the opportunity to write his first choral commission with The Salvage Men offered a way back into concert music after a long period focusing on his “day job” composing music for film and other media. And the words of Oscar Wilde provided a bridge: Beal had scored Al Pacino’s 2011 documentary film Wilde Salomé, which included a portrayal of the writer’s last days in Paris, with readings from his late work De Profundis (written while Wilde was in prison for “gross indecency”).
Just around this time Beal began a personal struggle coming to terms with a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Wilde’s De Profundis, he remarks, “came at the beginning of a journey in learning how to live gracefully with an uninvited guest…Composing, listening to, and performing music lessens pain and energizes me.”
For The Salvage Men, a joint commission from the Master Chorale and the Eric Whitacre Singers, Beal decided to use Wilde’s text about suffering as the opening frame, juxtaposed with the contemporary work of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Kay Ryan, a poet he admires for her “wonderful sense of lightness and humor, even levity at times, and also her joy in celebrating the fact that we do the best we can.”
Beal observes that choral music offers such a uniquely direct and emotional experience because “the body is the instrument: there’s nothing between you and the music.” For The Salvage Men he wanted to combine that power with the urge to tell stories, “which is what I love about writing film scores. Poets have a way of finding a path into the heart of the matter and seeing the bigger picture.”
Comprising five sections, Beal’s new choral work is “about catharsis but also about a response to living, to the universal existential questions we all face: the choices we make as we move through our lives and how they affect us.” The first section (the Wilde text) resembles the posing of a question, to which the other four respond in various ways.
The a cappella writing is infused with Beal’s trademark love of rhythm, which we hear at the outset in the interlocking parts all singing the word “suffering.” While there is polyphonic layering, Beal wanted to emphasize the importance of the text: with prominent word painting in the third and fifth sections especially. For example, in “Virga” (at the center of the piece), the effect of the harmony is dreamlike, with the voices intertwining to create a sound “like staring up at a beautiful cloud that maybe drifts so slowly you don’t see it move.”
Beal says he also aimed to be “brutally simple, above all in Kay Ryan’s poems,” and to introduce elements of surprise in where the music takes you. “Surprise is the key to drama, and I like being surprised in music as well. I like playing around with the sense of expectation we have as listeners.” Dissonance, for example, can be a very useful tool to add a note of the unexpected: “not the kind of dissonance that pushes you away but something slightly off that tickles your ear in a certain way.” Beal’s choral style here blends some echoes of minimalism with unanticipated contrasts and the tension these generate.
Another of the new works on our program is by the L.A.-based Nilo Alcala (b. 1978), a native of the Philippines. Mangá Pakalagián (Ceremonies) is a 22-minute-long choral suite of three sections in which Alcala fuses traditional kulintang instrumental music from the Southern Philippines — performed here by Subla featuring Guro Danongan “Danny” S. Kalanduyan — with his composition for chorus. He additionally crafted the sung texts himself, appropriating chants and rituals that would essentially represent the three different ceremonial occasions integrated in the suite. Alcala wrote the texts in English and Tagalog, which were then translated into the Maguindanao dialect by Guro Danny.
Kulintang refers both to a traditional repertoire of music for particular ceremonial occasions and to the instrumental ensemble centered around a horizontal row of gongs. Alcala incorporates indigenous materials into his composition so as “to highlight how music is very much integrated in everyday community events in this region of the Philippines.”
The instrumental source music is normally passed down in oral tradition and — like the rituals themselves — dates back to pre-Islamic cultures in the southern Philippines. Like Béla Bartók, Alcala was an outsider observing this culture. He has instructed the players to give a sample (reduced to about one minute each) of the styles distinctive to three ceremonial occasions by way of introducing the choral movements proper. This highly rhythmicized music-making, says the composer, “is very community like, and though it is always played by ear, as in jazz, the players have their own sets of rules they follow, and a musical form or structure they adhere to.”
Mangá Pakalagián begins with Midtagapedá (“Fellowship”), inspired by the traditional piece Kapagónor — a type of kulintang used to welcome important guests. Papedsalámat (“Thanksgiving”) is a song greeting the bounty of harvest time — and intended to scare away pilfering birds and insects. It draws material from the traditional piece Kaluntáng, which is usually played with bamboo/wooden counterparts to the kulintang ensemble. The third and final section, Sagayán (“Pre-Battle Ritual”), was originally associated with healing, protection from evil spirits, and the invocation of invincibility. Fortunately, as Alcala points out, Tagónggo — the traditional kulintang music that accompanies the Sagayán ritual — is nowadays typically encountered not in a bellicose context but during weddings and other festive events.
Papedsalámat is entirely a cappella, while the first and third sections incorporate passages in which the kulintang punctuates as well as provides an underlying bed of traditional rhythms. This is a challenging practice, the composer explains, since kulintang tuning is not well-tempered (it even varies from village to village). Alcala likens the thick textures of his music for Mangá Pakalagián to the intricate, colorful designs of textiles and tapestries of the southern Philippines: “You will hear different layers of organically related motifs that are interwoven in various sonic atmospheres; this results in a texture that is both intricate, driven, and evolving.”
Representing another link back to the Master Chorale’s own past — back to the Roger Wagner era! — is Paul Chihara (b. 1938), whose Missa Carminum was commissioned for the ensemble’s American Bicentennial program in 1976. Chihara cites Leonard Bernstein and Nadia Boulanger among his leading mentors. “The vocal art was very important to Boulanger,” recalls Chihara, “and she felt it was essential to becoming a better musician.” Bernstein in turn invited Chihara as a young composer to Tanglewood’s first-ever fellowship in choral conducting and sight-singing (the Demonstration Singers program).
We hear the world premiere of Ave Maria/Scarborough Fair, setting the familiar prayer Chihara says holds a very special place for him as a Roman Catholic. Calling for a mixed choir blended with a four-part women’s choir, his approach structures the prayer as a dialogue between heaven and earth. “I almost wish the women’s choir could be suspended from the ceiling via cables: they represent the voice of heaven!” quips the composer.
A solo oboe meanwhile contributes its voice, evoking something akin to the shofar (ram’s horn) to remind us that “there was no tradition yet of Christianity: these people were coming from the great tradition of Judaism.”
The prominent rising interval that defines the opening melody is shared with the beginning of the folk tune “Scarborough Fair,” which is used as a cantus firmus in the manner of Renaissance composers who would incorporate popular tunes into their sacred music. “I’m a real child of the 1960s,” says Chihara, “when we were constantly looking for ways for popular and classical music to interact. I always enjoyed the fact that for the Renaissance painters the difference between secular and sacred art was almost nonexistent. That has been my model.”
The sentiment of “Scarborough Fair” in particular, he says, evokes a sadness and nostalgia that runs through his new Ave Maria setting: “It suggests an era of faith that I don’t think exists in our world anymore. Maria — ‘she once was a true love of mine’!”
Dale Trumbore (b. 1987) was still a graduate student at the University of Southern California — where Morten Lauridsen numbered among her mentors — when she wrote The Whole Sea In Motion for the USC Chamber Singers to premiere in a 2011 program revolving around the theme of water.
“I was looking for a text to set and found this excerpt from Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey [her debut novel from 1847]. I was so taken by the vividness and richness of the text. I love the paradox of the first sentence, where she writes, ‘No language can describe [...] the sky and ocean’ but goes on to do exactly that in rich, vivid language. This piece explores the many ways that music can achieve the same effect.”
The Whole Sea in Motion calls for mixed chorus and piano, which plays clusters of repeated notes that alternate rapidly or slowly in an aleatoric manner — i.e., unpredictably, with varying speed and order independent of the conductor’s beat, to suggest a kind of primal undulating motion.
As to the text setting, Trumbore explains that she wanted to use the rich potential of the voices to paint Brontë’s imagery in sound: the luminous harmonies for “bright morning” and “the brilliant, sparkling waves,” or the hushed women’s voices beginning the passage “nothing else was stirring.” The result is a choral tone poem combining through-composed vocal music with an aleatoric counterpoint in the piano.
Like Trumbore, Matthew Brown (b. 1978) also found a mentor in Morten Lauridsen. While his music has been performed on several Master Chorale programs, Another Lullaby for Insomniacs originated in 2012 as a “thank-you” to the Antioch Chamber Ensemble, which has championed and recorded his music for years. Demonstrating another thread that runs through this program, Brown brings a deep sensitivity to poetry to his work as a choral composer. Here, it’s the poetry of MacArthur “genius” A.E. Stallings (b. 1968), who moved from her native Georgia to resettle in Athens, Greece.
Brown especially appreciates Stallings’ use of traditional poetic forms. “It reflects how my own music uses many traditional elements, but with a modern twist: I feel the mix of old and new in her poetry is similar to what I like to write. And she has a musical way with language that speaks to me.” Brown opted for mixed choir with piano in order to strip down the sound to something simpler after having composed pieces calling for complex, multilayered textures.
The result is Brown’s perspective on another of his great loves — Renaissance counterpoint — but here the parts move together, not imitatively, envisioning the choir as a single voice divided into four equal parts: “Each of the four voices has its own melody, with constant motion between the voices, but you hear the text clearly. Harmonically, this constant flux mirrors the text’s images of tossing and turning, never really settling into any traditional feeling of rest.” The piano part meanwhile provides commentary of its own to Stallings’ personification of sleep as a distant lover. Emphasizing the higher and lower registers, at times the piano evokes the inexorable and relentless passage of time.”
How do composers musically reflect the challenges of a specific place in our global era? In The Desert With You, another of this evening’s world premieres, offers one example. Moira Smiley (b. 1976) asked to fulfill the commission by writing about the California drought; while writing the commission, she researched deeply about what we can do to achieve a situation of sustainable water usage in L.A. A globally touring singer and folksong collector herself with an abiding interest in unusual folk music that extends from early American shape-note to Celtic and East European village traditions, the composer says she hopes people will “feel more hopeful and empowered” to think through and solve the water crisis as global citizens and local activists.
In The Desert With You starts with voices calling out to water as an entity -— a powerful entity who the singers are trying to better understand and respect. The whole first movement of the piece crescendos with the physicality of rushing, bubbling water to a precipice that drops sickeningly into an arid stillness — where the bubble is burst, literally and figuratively.
To bring us out of this oppressive stillness, Smiley uses the lyrics of the shape-note hymn, Garden Hymn (“Oh that this dry and barren ground with springs of water may abound; a fruitful soil become”) to show how people “create a world we want to live in, but often by means that are not sustainable.”
A tenor’s solo voice pleads the innocence of our endeavors, while the other voices in the chorus increasingly show the complexity — “borrow, steal, borrow” — of fulfilling our desires. Finally, water speaks, and the piece opens out into grandeur and patience as water explains how it can be collected and recycled from all its forms. The finale sees human and water join in a dizzying embrace. Smiley expresses this hopeful surrender with final, full-chorus glissandi arriving into new understanding of people working humbly with water to sustain each other.
Like Moira Smiley, Shawn Kirchner (b. 1970) is an active composer-performer. In recent seasons Master Chorale audiences have heard several examples of member Kirchner’s longer-form choral compositions as well as his arrangements of folk material. Memorare, by contrast, is a stand-alone, non-folk-based setting of a classic prayer of devotion to the Virgin Mary.
Composed for six-part choir in 2010 on a commission from the McAniff Family for Grant Gershon and the Master Chorale, Memorare is set to the original Latin text of the prayer, which was popularized in the 17th century by the French priest Claude Bernard, who ministered to criminals and prisoners facing execution. “This is the prayer of someone seeking intercession. It’s based on the image of Mary as a font of mercy, a source of healing,” explains Kirchner. “I constructed the piece to move from the yearning expressed in the opening, pushing toward the catharsis and healing moment it finally reaches with the ‘Amen.’”
The sonic image of people murmuring came to him, Kirchner recalls, from a recent trip to Saint Petersburg, where he had witnessed long lines of people in Russian churches “waiting to have their moment with an icon of the Virgin. These multitudes of people murmuring and praying struck me as an image of humanity praying at all times to whatever source of mercy we can find.”
— Thomas May, program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, writes about the arts and blogs at memeteria.com.