Review: L.A. Master Chorale Boards A French Connection
While TV’s "Glee" has arguably given a cappella music a renaissance of cool, the Los Angeles Master Chorale argued Sunday that a cappella music has been cool since the Renaissance.
Of course there are differences between Fox’s musical-comedy-Youtube-approved teen soap and the choral’s lighthearted program of French music — judging by the crisp, politely dressed types that mostly filled out the Walt Disney Concert Hall, target audience is high on the list.
Which is a shame, because the chorale’s show, “French Connections,” whose selections spanned eras from a 16th century Mass by Josquin up to a trio of songs Maurice Ravel wrote at the onset of WWI, was an ideal gesture to a younger audience the ensemble is no doubt eager to have on board.
Take the opening of the concert, which threaded Josquin’s "Missa de Beata Virgine" with sections of "Quatre Motets sur des Thèmes Grègoriens" by Maurice Duruflé. As conductor Grant Gershon explained at the outset, the movements of a Mass were not intended to be sung without break, and so, as a measure of authenticity, parts of the Duruflé gave pause throughout the course of Josquin’s famed composition.
This is something a Gleek might call a “mash-up.” The program preferred “interleaved.”
Like most mash-ups the genius behind the idea didn’t quite match the realization. It was a wise decision to allow the audience momentary respite from each movement of Mass; however, Josquin’s intricate and sinuous polyphony would swallow almost any other piece of music whole, no less the delicate and tightly-knit harmonies in the motet.
But this was merely a debatable programming strategy in what otherwise was a sterling and exciting performance from the chorale. The group of 37 versatile singers produced a sound that was at times warm and lustrous, or haunting and reverent, all to the demands of the music.
In the show’s second half, the group took a virtuosic look through ten French chansons, a wildly popular form of secular music during the 16th century. Though a few of them “Bonjour mon coeur” (which was reprised as an encore) and “Pleurez mes yeaux” were of the soft and touching ilk, the overall theme was a kind of glib debauchery. A translated sample lyric from one of the pastoral pieces: “He is a good chap, my husband / he doesn’t annoy or beat me.”
All these moments transition brilliantly into the finale of Ravel’s “Trois Chanson,” themselves a pastiche of the earlier French songs. The three movements varied in tone, from the humorous fairy tale of “Nicolette” to the ethereal sadness of “Trois beaux oisaux du paradis” to the furiously fast “Ronde,” a cautionary tale full of hobgoblins and imps that just had to have reached Sondheim at some point.
Under Gershon’s steady hand, he coaxed beautiful phrases from the softer moments of the Ravel, while allowing the more comical moments in the chansons to ring out — all the while keeping the ensemble in tight accordance, which including tamping down on a few sopranos who seemed ready to launch themselves into orbit.
The evening’s light-hearted vibe was reflected in the dress-casual black outfits the choir adorned. The ensemble remained warmly lit underneath the concert hall’s expressionistic organ — God’s stash of hand-cut sweet potato fries.
It is unlikely that many of the upcoming shows for the Chorale will be allowed the same joi de vivre, not to say they won’t be beautiful in their own right. But with $10 student rush tickets available, and "Glee" fully accessible online, there seems no reason for a little audience crossover in future shows.