A Flowering of Spirituality in Music for the Ages
By Victoria Looseleaf
With its 6,134 signature "French fry" pipes, the magnificent organ at Walt Disney Concert Hall is not only a sight to behold, but is considered some of the world's most dazzling, super-sonic, if you will, ear candy. It's as if Hungarian-born composer/ ethnomusicologist Zoltan Kodály had composed his Laudes organi (In praise of organs) for this magisterially unique instrument. "Listen to the chorus of pipes, the musical instrument of modern artists, a paragon of melody which plays sweetly ... " These eloquent words, translated from the Latin, kick start the vocal portion of the work Kodály deemed "a fantasy on a 12th century sequence." Commissioned by the American Guild of Organists and premiered in Atlanta, Georgia in 1966, the 20-minute secular opus was the composer's last large-scale work. Although performed infrequently, it is, fittingly, a summation of Kodály's many interests: Gregorian chant; the parlando of Hungarian folk song (Kodály and Bartók began research in 1905, using a recording cylinder); the spectacular melding of the four-part chorus that yields lush Romantic harmonies; and – the coup de grace – those mighty organ interludes reminiscent of Bach's polyphonic writing. A force in 20th century music who hit a posthumous commercial apex with his five tone sequence in Steven Spielberg's 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Kodály had developed a way to show music to the deaf with hands), the composer wrote for every possible vocal combination, with and without instruments. Indeed, Kodály was somewhat of a choral zealot; his substantial contributions to the repertory testify to his passion and prowess. "Musician, you must behave like a warrior," the text continues, beseeching singer and organist to, well, pull out all the stops in animating the flamboyant score. Reminiscent in spirit of mega-rapper Eminem's Oscar™ winning song, "Lose Yourself," the blast of organ-chorus rumblings beckons the listener to do just that. And talk about modern – the work traverses a universe of key signatures, revealing rich textures, unbridled pleasures and the many moods of a man whose vision helped elevate Hungary's star in the musical firmament.
"The voice and organ are not in competition with one another," explains Paul Salamunovich, Music Director Emeritus of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, who raises his baton for the first time in Disney Hall to conduct this concert of cherry-picked works. "They're harmonious," he adds, "and with its wandering melody, this piece has a little of everything."
No stranger to the work, the Maestro conducted it in his final season with the Chorale at the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles. For this evening's concert, Salamunovich says he wanted century- spanning music that would not only showcase the a cappella sound of the chorus – including Jacob Handl's Renaissance work, Pater noster, Anton Bruckner's late Romantic Os justi and Edvard Grieg's late 19th century Ave, maris stella – but also highlight the organ. Louis Vierne's Carillon de Westminster, a short organ solo from the early 20th century, provides another opportunity to explore the instrument's aural grandeur, with the French connection blooming in the work of Maurice Duruflé, notably his Requiem.
Born in 1902 at Louviers, the organist/composer Duruflé studied at the Paris Conservatory under Charles Tournemire and Vierne, and with Paul Dukas, his composition teacher. For Duruflé, writing music proved a labored process, one fraught with endless musical parsing. As a result, the composer, who died in 1986, had only 14 works published, his Requiem the most frequently performed. Originally commissioned as an organ suite, the 1947 work was extended to its present form after the death of Duruflé's father. Shunning the avant-garde that fellow student Olivier Messiaen embraced, Duruflé looked to the past, specifically to Fauré's impressionist palette and to the Gregorian chants of the Mass for the Dead. There he found inspiration for the timeless work that is glossed with a keen spirituality. Pleased with the results, Duruflé provided three settings for the Requiem (much like seminal rockers Pink Floyd did with symphonic variations of their classic tunes on their 1995 recording, Us and Them) - one for complete orchestra, another for reduced orchestra and one for organ and chorus, the version Salamunovich has chosen as this concert's centerpiece.
"Singing is an extension of speech," declares Salamunovich, who has conducted the 40-minute Requiem numerous times, adding, "singers need to be musical actors." And Salamunovich, still active at 78, could be the Coppola of chorus conductors, coaxing awesome performances from his charges in this New Age-style Requiem. (Think Ram Dass and his "be here now" philosophy; such is the power of the score to engage the listener as much as the performer.) Because Duruflé, who omitted the "Day of Judgment" texts from his Requiem, abandoning the tragedy-and flame-infused visions of Heaven and Hell exemplified in Verdi, for example, instead imbued his work with a luscious tranquility typified by the final movement, "In Paradisum." Appropriated from the Burial Service, the voluptuous chords sung by the full choir up the spirituality "ante", where the work's final chord, an unresolved dominant ninth, does nothing less than melt into eternity. Making use of the same text as Fauré, Duruflé opts to fuse various elements - plain song, liturgical modes, a hint of counterpoint and the delicious harmonies one might find in Debussy. The musical form, dictated by the liturgy itself, seems to soar, as the play between voices and organ accentuates the idea of comfort, faith, and finally, hope - a worthy triumvirate. Salamunovich spent a week with Duruflé in 1971 when the Frenchman was in town to conduct the piece. He recalls preparing the chorus for a gentle man who, in turn, registered his satisfaction by glowingly inscribing a score to Salamunovich. This keepsake is in the Maestro's study, a room overflowing with mementos, among them framed pictures of Salamunovich with luminaries such as Robert DeNiro (the conductor worked on the 1981 film True Confessions), Igor Stravinsky (for whose 75th birthday he prepared a concert), and Duruflé. Indeed, Salamunovich recently learned that same photograph hangs in the late composer's Parisian home.
"I was moved to tears when I heard that," he admits. Tears also flow freely at the mystical sounds of Morten Lauridsen's O magnum mysterium. Written and premiered in 1994 for the Chorale under Salamunovich's directorship, the five-plus minute work became an instant classic, taking its place beside such masterpieces as Gorecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. It was this motet that led to Lauridsen's becoming the Chorale's composer-in-residence for six years; it was also impetus for Lux Aeterna, the Grammy™ nominated work for chorus and chamber orchestra that bowed in 1997 and was dedicated to Salamunovich for his 70th birthday. Of the motet, a tiny jewel whose pristine harmonies resonate like a shot to the heart, Lauridsen said he, like Duruflé, was inspired by the text, one where "the affirmation of God's grace to the meek and the adoration of the Blessed Virgin are celebrated through a quiet song of profound inner joy." Allowing that inner joy to radiate outward, where grace and music become one, where the silences can be as visceral and affecting as the sounds that may have come before, this is the power of great art: bask in it, revel in it, and go forth into the world, pure and fortified.