Great Opera Choruses

May 18, 2008, 12:00 AM
Grant Gershon, Conductor
Walt Disney Concert Hall
TITLE COMPOSER/ ARRANGER GUEST ARTISTS
Suite from The Grapes of Wrath Ricky Ian Gordon
Drea Pressley , Mezzo Soprano
Rose Beattie , Alto
Steve Pence , Bass/Baritone
Daniel Chaney , Tenor
Scott Graff , Bass-Baritone
Winter Watson , Soprano
Elizabeth Bishop , Mezzo Soprano
Brian Leerhuber , Baritone
Tonoccus McClain , Baritone
Kevin St. Clair , Tenor
Andrew Brown , Tenor
Risa Larson , Soprano
Kim Josephson , Baritone
Vedi! Le fosche notturne spoglie (Anvil Chorus) Giuseppe Verdi
Humming Chorus Giacomo Puccini
Va Pensiero, sull'ali Dorate (Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) Giuseppe Verdi
Regina coeli, laetare (Easter Hymn) Pietro Mascagni
Winter Watson , Soprano
Rataplan Giuseppe Verdi
Elizabeth Bishop , Mezzo Soprano
Coronation Scene Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky
Kim Josephson , Baritone
Daniel Chaney , Tenor
Epilogue Voici le Soir Morten Lauridsen

Opulent Opera Choruses Through the Ages

By Victoria Looseleaf
 
In the Marx Brothers' cinematic take on high society, A Night At the Opera, the brilliantly wacky siblings cavort, cajole and cram into the world's smallest stateroom, all to the backdrop of the highest art form.   It was a smashing success.   So, too, did Tom Hanks find Academy Award-winning solace in the voice of Maria Callas as she sang an aria from Giordano's Andrea Chenier in Jonathan Demme's  Philadelphia.   And while the movies' love affair with opera continues, playwrights such as Terrence McNally, whose tribute to Callas resonated in not one but two works - Lisbon Traviata and Master Class - have only added to opera's allure.   Indeed, Callas herself once said, “An opera begins long before the curtain goes up and ends long after it has come down.  It starts in my imagination, it becomes my life, and it stays part of my life long after I've left the opera house.”
 
Tonight's concert of great opera choruses, from Verdi, Puccini, Mascagni and   Mussorgsky, to one of contemporary opera's brightest lights, Ricky Ian Gordon, promises to do the same.  Heightening the senses and stirring the soul, music of this nature allows us to experience life in more affirming ways.   And while in recent decades contemporary operas have been ripped from the headlines, including numerous John Adams masterpieces such as Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic (the saga of atom bomb creator J. Robert Oppenheimer), plays and novels have also proven a goldmine for source material. Andre Previn's Streetcar Named Desire and John Harbison's The Great Gatsby come to mind.    
 
Now, with the adaptation (sanctioned by the Steinbeck estate) of John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, Gordon and librettist Michael Korie have created a three-act epic opera for the ages.   Conducted by Los Angeles Master Chorale music director Grant Gershon at its premiere last year in Minnesota, the opera was an unequivocal hit.   Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Mark Swed pointed out, “…the greatest glory of the opera is Gordon's ability to musically flesh out the entire 11-member Joad clan.”
 
Tonight the stage is set for another debut:  that of the one-hour Choral Suite fashioned by Gordon and Korie from their instant classic.   Set during the Great Depression, the story of a poor family of sharecroppers driven from their home by drought and economic hardship still resonates today.   With entire pieces taken directly from the opera, as well as new sections made up of expanded musical ideas, Gordon likens the suite, which features a 60-piece orchestra and 125-member chorus, to “perfume,” a boiled-down essence that nevertheless imparts a sense of the Joad story.   Bookended with large choruses, the suite opens with the powerful prologue, “The Last Time There was Rain,” which explains the birth of the dust bowl, and concludes with the opera's Act 1 finale - the libretto speaking of Texaco, Greyhound and Route 66.   Contained within the suite are arias, including Ma Joad's “Us,” the classic double song, “The Plenty Road/Oakies” and “The Zephyr/One Star,” the last a duet for Connie Rivers and his pregnant wife, Rosasharn, the Joads’ daughter.   Other potent set pieces include the large chorus from Act 2, “Like They Promised,” which evokes emotions felt upon first seeing the beauty of California, and “The Creek,” a scene in which Noah Joad kills himself as a sacrificial act for his family. There is also a lengthy square dance scene and the thrilling, full-chorus, “Dios te salve (God have mercy).”   Sung in Spanish, it depicts female bean pickers who come upon the dead body of the preacher Casy.   With the creative team's roots in musical theater (Gordon's been dubbed the modern-day successor to Bernstein and Sondheim; Korie wrote the lyrics for the Tony award-winning Grey Gardens), the score is an amalgam of Americana, merging Broadway, opera and the twangy sounds - banjo and folksy harmonies - of the Depression.   Searing, moving and gloriously melodic, The Grapes of Wrath is a perfect storm of high art.    
 
Five years before Steinbeck's novel was published, the Marx Brothers turned to Verdi and the “Anvil Chorus” from Il Trovatore (1853) in A Night at the Opera.   Numerous parodies (including Glenn Miller’s jazz version) of this rousing work depicting Spanish gypsies working as tinkers and striking their anvils have appeared over the years.   Praising hard work, good vino and women, the chorus is typical of Verdi, a man of the common people able to capture like characters, none more so than in this hummable keeper of a chorus.
 
Those craving another Verdi fix will delight in choruses from Nabucco (1842) and La Forza del Destino (1862).   In the former, the grand, patriotic chorus of the Hebrew slaves, “Va Pensiero” is a paraphrase of Psalm 127 (“By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept”), with the music having been adopted as a de facto anthem in Italy.   Portraying the collective emotions resulting from the pain and suffering of a conquered land and a homeless people, this dramatic chorus, with its sweeping melody, was sung spontaneously at Verdi's funeral in 1901.   With La Forza del Destino, Verdi, for the first time, crafted an opera having an abstract idea for its title.   Meeting with a puzzling reception at its premiere but gaining acceptance over the years, the opera, which features a chorus in nearly every scene, is a panoramic view of life in time of war, presaging, in that respect, Boris Godounov (1874).   “Rataplan,” the third act chorus of Forza, is a kind of soldiers' call-to-arms.   Bristling with crisp snare drums and insistent tympani, the staccato-like vocals are a study in dogged determination, the Verdian trumpets creating a fabulous flourish.
 
As to Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, we meet the titular character at the height of his power and popularity for the first time in the authoritative “Coronation Scene.”   Throughout history, music has been written to honor royalty, and this chorus, set to the clanging of bells and chimes and amid great pomp and ceremony, is brilliant in its depiction of the 16th century figure accepting the crown of tsar.
 
On an altogether different note is Mascagni's one-act opera verismo, Cavalleria Rusticana (1890), one of the first to focus on “regular Joes.”   The marvelous “Easter Hymn” occurs early in the action and features a church choir singing the Latin text of “Regina Coeli” as it summons the Sicilian parishioners to the Mass.   A chorus of peasants and villagers then replies, the soaring soprano solo adding to the beauty of this heartfelt music.
 
Exquisite in every sense of the word, the “Humming Chorus” from Puccini's tragedy, Madama Butterfly, rates an 11.   First performed at La Scala in Milan in 1904 and said to be the composer's favorite, the opera is set in Japan and tells of the geisha, Butterfly, who marries an American naval officer.   After his three-year absence, Butterfly, anxiously awaiting Pinkerton's return, finally falls asleep with her son.   As dawn approaches, the offstage chorus performs this lullaby, the pizzicatos and luminous strings creating one of the most hauntingly beautiful melodies in opera.   So wondrously appealing are all of these choruses that they not only can stand alone, but serve as a reminder of music's greatest gift - transcending the mundane and elevating us towards a more blissful - and peaceful - existence.   
By Victoria Looseleaf
 
In the Marx Brothers' cinematic take on high society, A Night At the Opera, the brilliantly wacky siblings cavort, cajole and cram into the world's smallest stateroom, all to the backdrop of the highest art form.   It was a smashing success.   So, too, did Tom Hanks find Academy Award-winning solace in the voice of Maria Callas as she sang an aria from Giordano's Andrea Chenier in Jonathan Demme's  Philadelphia.   And while the movies' love affair with opera continues, playwrights such as Terrence McNally, whose tribute to Callas resonated in not one but two works - Lisbon Traviata and Master Class - have only added to opera's allure.   Indeed, Callas herself once said, “An opera begins long before the curtain goes up and ends long after it has come down.  It starts in my imagination, it becomes my life, and it stays part of my life long after I've left the opera house.”
 
Tonight's concert of great opera choruses, from Verdi, Puccini, Mascagni and   Mussorgsky, to one of contemporary opera's brightest lights, Ricky Ian Gordon, promises to do the same.  Heightening the senses and stirring the soul, music of this nature allows us to experience life in more affirming ways.   And while in recent decades contemporary operas have been ripped from the headlines, including numerous John Adams masterpieces such as Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic (the saga of atom bomb creator J. Robert Oppenheimer), plays and novels have also proven a goldmine for source material. Andre Previn's Streetcar Named Desire and John Harbison's The Great Gatsby come to mind.    
 
Now, with the adaptation (sanctioned by the Steinbeck estate) of John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, Gordon and librettist Michael Korie have created a three-act epic opera for the ages.   Conducted by Los Angeles Master Chorale music director Grant Gershon at its premiere last year in Minnesota, the opera was an unequivocal hit.   Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Mark Swed pointed out, “…the greatest glory of the opera is Gordon's ability to musically flesh out the entire 11-member Joad clan.”
 
Tonight the stage is set for another debut:  that of the one-hour Choral Suite fashioned by Gordon and Korie from their instant classic.   Set during the Great Depression, the story of a poor family of sharecroppers driven from their home by drought and economic hardship still resonates today.   With entire pieces taken directly from the opera, as well as new sections made up of expanded musical ideas, Gordon likens the suite, which features a 60-piece orchestra and 125-member chorus, to “perfume,” a boiled-down essence that nevertheless imparts a sense of the Joad story.   Bookended with large choruses, the suite opens with the powerful prologue, “The Last Time There was Rain,” which explains the birth of the dust bowl, and concludes with the opera's Act 1 finale - the libretto speaking of Texaco, Greyhound and Route 66.   Contained within the suite are arias, including Ma Joad's “Us,” the classic double song, “The Plenty Road/Oakies” and “The Zephyr/One Star,” the last a duet for Connie Rivers and his pregnant wife, Rosasharn, the Joads’ daughter.   Other potent set pieces include the large chorus from Act 2, “Like They Promised,” which evokes emotions felt upon first seeing the beauty of California, and “The Creek,” a scene in which Noah Joad kills himself as a sacrificial act for his family. There is also a lengthy square dance scene and the thrilling, full-chorus, “Dios te salve (God have mercy).”   Sung in Spanish, it depicts female bean pickers who come upon the dead body of the preacher Casy.   With the creative team's roots in musical theater (Gordon's been dubbed the modern-day successor to Bernstein and Sondheim; Korie wrote the lyrics for the Tony award-winning Grey Gardens), the score is an amalgam of Americana, merging Broadway, opera and the twangy sounds - banjo and folksy harmonies - of the Depression.   Searing, moving and gloriously melodic, The Grapes of Wrath is a perfect storm of high art.    
 
Five years before Steinbeck's novel was published, the Marx Brothers turned to Verdi and the “Anvil Chorus” from Il Trovatore (1853) in A Night at the Opera.   Numerous parodies (including Glenn Miller’s jazz version) of this rousing work depicting Spanish gypsies working as tinkers and striking their anvils have appeared over the years.   Praising hard work, good vino and women, the chorus is typical of Verdi, a man of the common people able to capture like characters, none more so than in this hummable keeper of a chorus.
 
Those craving another Verdi fix will delight in choruses from Nabucco (1842) and La Forza del Destino (1862).   In the former, the grand, patriotic chorus of the Hebrew slaves, “Va Pensiero” is a paraphrase of Psalm 127 (“By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept”), with the music having been adopted as a de facto anthem in Italy.   Portraying the collective emotions resulting from the pain and suffering of a conquered land and a homeless people, this dramatic chorus, with its sweeping melody, was sung spontaneously at Verdi's funeral in 1901.   With La Forza del Destino, Verdi, for the first time, crafted an opera having an abstract idea for its title.   Meeting with a puzzling reception at its premiere but gaining acceptance over the years, the opera, which features a chorus in nearly every scene, is a panoramic view of life in time of war, presaging, in that respect, Boris Godounov (1874).   “Rataplan,” the third act chorus of Forza, is a kind of soldiers' call-to-arms.   Bristling with crisp snare drums and insistent tympani, the staccato-like vocals are a study in dogged determination, the Verdian trumpets creating a fabulous flourish.
 
As to Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, we meet the titular character at the height of his power and popularity for the first time in the authoritative “Coronation Scene.”   Throughout history, music has been written to honor royalty, and this chorus, set to the clanging of bells and chimes and amid great pomp and ceremony, is brilliant in its depiction of the 16th century figure accepting the crown of tsar.
 
On an altogether different note is Mascagni's one-act opera verismo, Cavalleria Rusticana (1890), one of the first to focus on “regular Joes.”   The marvelous “Easter Hymn” occurs early in the action and features a church choir singing the Latin text of “Regina Coeli” as it summons the Sicilian parishioners to the Mass.   A chorus of peasants and villagers then replies, the soaring soprano solo adding to the beauty of this heartfelt music.
 
Exquisite in every sense of the word, the “Humming Chorus” from Puccini's tragedy, Madama Butterfly, rates an 11.   First performed at La Scala in Milan in 1904 and said to be the composer's favorite, the opera is set in Japan and tells of the geisha, Butterfly, who marries an American naval officer.   After his three-year absence, Butterfly, anxiously awaiting Pinkerton's return, finally falls asleep with her son.   As dawn approaches, the offstage chorus performs this lullaby, the pizzicatos and luminous strings creating one of the most hauntingly beautiful melodies in opera.   So wondrously appealing are all of these choruses that they not only can stand alone, but serve as a reminder of music's greatest gift - transcending the mundane and elevating us towards a more blissful - and peaceful - existence.   

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