Music in the Key of New
by Peter Rutenberg
For the first time, Walt Disney Concert Hall resounds with the Los Angeles Master Chorale under the direction of Grant Gershon. In this once-in-a-lifetime concert, we hear some of the oldest and newest music written for that most expressive of instruments — the human voice. Tonight’s repertoire has been selected both for its inherent musical value and to highlight the hall’s exceptional acoustics as well as the sense of high celebration unique to this occasion.
Veni creator spiritus
Come, creative spirit
It is fitting and most symbolic that the first music sung by the Master Chorale in Walt Disney Concert Hall should be this timeless hymn invoking the creative spirit to “fill our hearts” and “enflame our senses.” The history of Roman Catholic plainchant is long and varied with origins in ancient Jewish tradition. It is now known that the Frankish clerics exerted a considerable influence over its development in the ninth century and that the majority of what is referred to as Gregorian Chant was solidified not during Pope Gregory’s lifetime but in the 11th-13th centuries. Veni creator spiritus dates from the 10th century and serves liturgically as a hymn at Pentecost. Its popularity is attested throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, with Gustav Mahler eventually appropriating its text for his Eighth Symphony.
Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied
Sing to the Lord a new song
Johann Sebastian Bach’s motets are unique among the master’s output. They are not as grand in scope as the Mass in B Minor, the Magnificat, or the Passions; neither are they reliant on vocal and instrumental soloists like the cantatas. Rather they feature the chorus in a virtuosic role. While the motets were suitable for church use, it is probable that they were composed for other kinds of celebrations (official birthdays and affairs of state) or for funerals. The boundless joy evident in the antiphonal fanfares that open Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied for double chorus distinguish its purpose as one of great festivity. Beginning with the words “The children of Zion,” Bach seizes his first opportunity to write a fugue. The Choir I sopranos lead off, followed by altos, then tenors. The basses of both choirs intone the fourth statement of the “subject” in unison, succeeded by the Choir II tenors, altos, and finally sopranos, making for an extended arc. The second section gives different thematic material to each group: Choir II sings the tender chorale and Choir I comments on and embellishes each phrase in response. The mood of joy returns in the third section, continuing into the fugal fourth section. Here the choirs merge to sing “Everything that hath breath, praise the Lord” — the very motto engraved on the composer’s organ cabinet in Leipzig.
Two world premieres
Composer/Conductor/Performer Bobby McFerrin is well known to a wide range of audiences as the singer’s singer. The son of opera singers, Mr. McFerrin first came to public attention in 1981 following his appearance at the Kool Jazz Festival in New York. He went on to work with a veritable “Who’s Who” of jazz performers and won the Grammy Award® for best male jazz vocalist in 1986. Early experiences in a broad range of vocal and instrumental techniques gave way in the 1990s to engagements as a composer for and conductor of orchestras, opera companies, and his own virtuoso ensemble Voicestra.
His composing partner, Roger Treece, has spent several years developing a new voice in choral music, combining his own compositional expertise with McFerrin’s vocal innovations. This collaboration has resulted in a body of work that will soon be released as a Bobby McFerrin Choral Album. In 2003, McFerrin and Treece collaborated on a commission for Chicago’s Ravinia Festival: He Ran for the Train was premiered by the Chicago Symphony and Chicago Children’s Choir and acclaimed by the Chicago press. Influenced by jazz and gospel as a child, Mr. Treece studied composition at the University of Northern Colorado, and later with Lyle Mays of the Pat Metheny Group, among others. In addition to his symphonic works, he has written for film, television, radio, and commercials. His work as a composer, arranger and producer has earned him two Grammy nominations, 14 Downbeat awards.
Brief Eternity (2003) is the first of two works written by McFerrin and Treece especially for this program and is scored for six-part chorus, two flutes and harp, to an original text by Don Rosler. The use of oxymorons such as “timeless time,” “brief eternity,” and “small infinity” establish the text’s allegorical themes of “mystery in the human experience” from origin to destiny, and of “longing for the unknowable or unattainable,” or, as Mr. Treece calls it, “a glimpse of heaven.” He goes on to explain that, “The melodic themes were conceived first. Then the piece, with its romantic character, was fleshed out later.”
By contrast, Messages (2003), scored for chorus, low strings, percussion and soprano saxophone, grew from a single ostinato pattern of eighth notes. A first theme was developed from this pattern, then two more contrasting themes were added to yield an ABAC form. This pattern comprises the first and last thirds of the work, with the final C-section extended by a free-form coda. The central section explores the medium of improvisation against a backdrop of fixed score, as the saxophone paraphrases the soprano chorus in dialogue. The ostinato figure inspired the text as well: its pattern reminded Mr. Rosler of Morse Code which in turn suggested the use of more than a dozen languages to deliver various “messages” emblemized by the entreaty, “Heed the voices of time.”
Massachusetts-born, Harvard-educated, and California-based, composer John Adams is surely one of the most powerful and eloquent figures in contemporary music today. Several of his works have entered the repertoire and are widely performed around the world, among them, Shaker Loops, Harmonielehre, The Chairman Dances, and the 1981 Harmonium. Drawing on current events rather than history, Mr. Adams created a cultural revolution of his own with his two operas, Nixon in China (1987) and The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) — both controversial and provocative, both a creative expansion of the operatic medium. San Francisco has served as Mr. Adams’ base since he joined the faculty of that city’s Conservatory in the late 1970s, and later as composer-in-residence with San Francisco Symphony into the mid-1980s.
Mr. Adams together with Steve Reich and Philip Glass are the ‘triad’ of American Minimalism, yet the word hardly does justice to Adams’ musical language: Maximalism is more in tune with his style. Harmonium’s expansive three movements were born ironically in the cramped quarters of the composer’s Haight-Ashbury apartment. To understand the work’s breadth and energy, Adams offers this description: “In Shaker Loops, I utilized the repetitive techniques that Terry Riley first proposed in his In C. Rather than set up small engines of motivic materials and let them run free, I used the fabric of continually repeating cells to forge large architectonic shapes — creating a web of activity that was more detailed, more varied, light and dark, serene and turbulent. Ultimately I settled on three poems of transcendental vision. ‘Negative Love’ by John Donne examines the qualities of various forms of love, ascending like Plato’s Symposium from the carnal to the divine. Musically, this meant a formal shape — first, a single, pulsing note that, by process of accretion, becomes a tone cluster, then a chord, and eventually a huge, rippling current that takes on energy and mass until it crests in a cataract of sound. To date, I still consider ‘Negative Love’ one of the most satisfying architectural experiments in all my work. The two Dickinson poems show the polar opposites of her poetic voice. ‘Because I Could Not Stop for Death’ is the intimate, hushed Dickinson, whose beyond-the-grave monologue is a sequence of images from a short life seen through the lens of a slow-motion camera. Following the slow movement, the music enters a transition, gradually assuming weight, force and speed, until it is hurled headlong into the vibrant clangor of ‘Wild Nights.’ Here is the other side of Emily Dickinson, saturated with an intoxicated, ecstatic, pressing urge to dissolve herself in some private and unknowable union of Eros and Death.”