Happy ‘Share Day’!
by Grant Gershon
So what exactly do an English madrigal, an Indian raga, a Cuban son, a Sacred Harp barnburner and a Finnish a cappella blues (!) have in common?
Actually, there is one link in all of this marvelous music — the human voice, which transcends the boundaries of time, place, culture and genre. As the L.A. Master Chorale and I mark the close of our 5th season together, we will celebrate the wide-ranging, eclectic and diverse musical traditions that we have explored, and we’ll venture into a few uncharted regions as well. Time and again, the members of the Master Chorale have proven themselves to be the most wondrously versatile, flexible and fearless ensemble that I know of, so tonight we will throw an assortment of my favorite short pieces in the blender and share with you the joy of our own exploration, discovery and surprise.
Music Divine by Thomas Tomkins is one of my favorite English madrigals. It is slightly unusual in that it is scored for six voices rather than the more standard four or five parts common in most madrigals. This six-part texture gives the piece a wonderfully full, mellifluous character and also allows Tomkins to explore a variety of textures, including pairs of echoing trios and a series of interlocking duets (listen for some wonderful cascading thirds in the upper voices illustrating the word ‘harmony’). We’ll follow this refined oh-so-English madrigal with a classic Sacred Harp barnburner, The Good Old Way, designed to peel the paint off of any wall it comes in contact with!
The Brahms motet Lass dich nur nichts dauern is one of his best known shorter choral works. It’s a masterwork of seemingly effortless polyphony, which beautifully communicates its message of consolation and inner peace. Janger is a type of Balinese traditional dance, and this arrangement of a Janger folksong by 27-year-old Budi Susanto Yohanes evokes both Gamelan music and the famous Balinese ketchak or Monkey Chant. Mi lumía is a mysterious and evocative setting by Argentinean composer Javier Zentner of an equally mysterious and evocative poem by Oliverio Girondo. Mi lumía is the choral version of pillow talk — half-whispered, edge-of-sleep murmurings to the one you love. It’s become one of my favorite recent pieces from Latin America.
New Moon is from a set of three songs by my good friend Ricky Ian Gordon to poems of Langston Hughes. As some in our audience will recall, Ricky joined us two seasons ago for our “New Broadway” concert. A few years back I played the piano on Ricky’s first CD entitled “Bright Eyed Joy,” and I have very fond memories of recording New Moon with a quartet that included Audra MacDonald and Darius de Haas. (Incidently, Ricky has just completed an operatic version of The Grapes of Wrath, which I am thrilled to be conducting next season at the Minnesota Opera and at Utah Opera.)
We’ll conclude the first half of our musical smorgasbord with four terrific contrasting pieces, beginning with the Sanctus from William Byrd’s 5 Part Mass. Normally it’s against the rules to perform a single movement from a larger work in concert, but why be normal? Isaiah’s vision of the winged Seraphim proclaiming these mysterious words has inspired countless composers over the centuries. Byrd’s Sanctus is simply one of the most sublime and transporting settings of this text that I know of. Andre Thomas is a composer and arranger who knows exactly how much is just enough, and this arrangement of the spiritual Keep Your Lamps delivers with understated glory and groove. Tonight we are thrilled to present one of the most recent pieces by our own much-loved former composer-in-residence, Morten Lauridsen, the choral equivalent of a rock star these days and quite possibly the most frequently performed living composer in the world. This extraordinarily beautiful setting of James Agee’s poem Sure On This Shining Night embodies the deep sense of wonder and ecstasy of the poetry. We’ll close out this ‘set’ with what’s become one of our singers’ favorite pieces, Wana Baraka, a Kenyan hymn stunningly arranged by the Chorale’s own Shawn Kirchner.
The title Dravidian Dithyramb sounds a bit daunting (just try saying it three times fast!). Luckily we don’t ever actually sing those words — this composition is simply a fast vocalise of a South Indian raga on the syllables na-na-na. As the composer Victor Paranjoti himself described it: “Dravidian Dithyramb is an expression of uninhibited festivity…the pulse driving onward faster and faster toward the final frenzied utterance.” Philip Glass was also influenced by Indian music, although the a cappella Haze Gold (poem by Carl Sandburg) dates from the early 60s, before Philip Glass was Philip Glass. There are hints of the minimalism to come, but mainly this piece is an austere and lovely musical evocation of autumn half-light.
Some works speak so eloquently for themselves that it’s foolish and unnecessary to add any verbal insights. Such is the case with Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, written just six months before his untimely death.
Choose Something Like a Star is a piece that seemingly every high school chorus and college glee club performed when I was young(er). Now it feels to me like a guilty pleasure, but I certainly make no apologies for offering it this evening. Whether or not it’s in fashion, this is a glorious piece that has always resonated deeply for me. Go ahead, enjoy.
Next up in our eclectic musical tour is a virtuoso a cappella Cuban son called El Guayaboso, brilliantly arranged by Guido López-Gavilán. Nonstop from Cuba to Finland, for one of the most unlikely pieces I’ve run across in some time, Jaakko Mäntyjärvi’s “O infant, I am in possession of the ultramarines”. If you want a hint as to the meaning of the title, think of a familiar American phrase (Joe Williams and Muddy Waters have uttered it on many occasions) translated into Finnish and then back into English via a Berlitz phrasebook.
Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen by Gustav Mahler is one of the most sublime art songs there is, and I was very pleased to find this wonderfully sensitive arrangement of it for choir and piano. Speaking of arrangements, Robert Burns’ My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose, aka So Deep, by James MacMillan and The Battle of Jericho by Moses Hogan rank as two of the best choral adaptations that I know and bring this survey of choral creations to an exuberant close.
When I was in kindergarten we had ‘Show-and-Tell’ every week. In my son’s pre-school it’s known as “Share Day,” but the idea is the same. Bring your favorite things, pass them around, and take pleasure in sharing what you love with your friends. To all of you this evening then, Happy Share Day!