LA Opus
Reporting on music and the lively arts
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By Douglas Neslund
With the mighty Bach B-Minor Mass coming in January, one notices not a single measure on this evening’s menu from the Baroque period. Yet the music at hand is hardly of palette clearing value, but solid courses of late Romantic and mid-20thcentury holiday season genré. On this occasion, the Los Angeles Master Chorale was in top form heading into a couple of weeks where even the most committed choristers might be forgiven if they might sound a bit tired.

Maestro Grant Gershon opened the evening with four of Nine Carols for Male Voices by Ralph Vaughn-Williams. Hearing the men sing alone is undeniably thrilling, especially the Mummers’ Carol, and extra special with this group of talented, intelligent and committed singers.
While the stage was being reset to accommodate a chamber group of woodwinds and piano 4-hand, Maestro Gershon introduced Ottorino Respighi’s Lauda per la Nativita del Signore, featuring an outstanding solo trio of Master Chorale members Hayden Eberhart in the “role” of L’Angelo, Daniel Cheney as Pastore, and Janelle DeStefano as Maria. As naïve as the text may be, Respighi’s orchestration and choral writing is exceptionally fresh-sounding and agreeable. Ms. Eberhart’s angelic voice was particularly well appointed for her role, as she effortlessly floated stratospheric tones with pure and impressive result. Ms. DeStefano was a properly chaste and gentle Mary, but it was likely Mr. Cheney who stole the show, not so much for his role playing, but for the fact he was returning to us having survived a nearly lethal encounter with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma over much of the summer and fall. His voice has acquired a deeper layer of soul to add to his usual brilliant high range. While role of shepherd asked him to represent those so humble they didn’t wish to sully the Infant Jesus by touch, Mr. Cheney imparted that, and much more. Many in the audience shouted bravos at the solo trio as they enjoyed multiple bows.
The women of the Master Chorale got their turn after intermission with another welcome salute to the centenary of composer Benjamin Britten via his “A Ceremony of Carols” written during a hazardous voyage across the U-Boot infested Atlantic. Written in three-parts for treble voices, one is most familiar through many recordings by various boys’ choirs in America and England. The initial performance was given by an English women’s choir, and for reasons not entirely clear, the initial recording conducted by Britten himself used the Copenhagen Boys Choir, instead of one of the excellent English collegiate or chapel choirs.
When it was Kings College Choir’s opportunity to record the work, Choirmaster David Willcocks approached the composer and among other performance-related questions, asked how Britten would prefer the ancient English texts to be sung. Britten said that choirs should sing it so that audiences could understand as much of it as possible. The reviewer worked with Sir David during choral workshops for more than ten years, employing his own choir as exemplars. Sir David related this information directly.
And yet, the occasional choir will attempt to find a way to sing the work “in the language of the time.” The primary problem with that attempt is, simply, nobody alive today knows how the language was pronounced in olden times. A best guess is the result, for better or for worse.
Lesley Leighton
Associate Master Chorale Conductor Lesley Leighton opted to choose the old English approximation that often distorts an understanding of the wonderful poetry. But in whatever language, the women sang gloriously, with articulation seldom heard in the roulades of “Wolcum Yole!” and the long descending lines of “In Freezing Winter Night” that challenge any choir’s breath control. Soprano Claire Fedoruk and mezzo soprano Drea Pressley both suffered momentary technical lapses in their “Spring Carol” duet. Ms. Leighton continues to conduct with a style more appropriate for a chorus of thousands, as though attempting to impress. “Ceremony” doesn’t require lots of arm waving. Harpist JoAnn Turovsky was well appreciated after her deliberate, introspective “Interlude” solo.
Stephen Paulus’s “Christmas Dances” comes assembled in four sections: Break Forth, Methinks I hear the Heavins <sic> Resound, The Nativity of Our Lord, and On the Nativity of Our Savior. The music varies widely while employing a rich variety of forces. Mr. Paulus suffered a major stroke during the summer past, and is still comatose.

Encores included a very witty John Rutter version of “Deck the Halls” followed by a schmaltzy “White Christmas” (yes, the Master Chorale can sing schmaltz!) and concluding with Maestro Gershon abdicating the podium to stand amidst his singers while warbling “We Wish You a Merry Christmas!”

Photos courtesy of David Johnston and from Wikipedia sources
2 years ago | |
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By Erica Miner

The day Leonard Bernstein died, a sense of gut-wrenching loss pervaded the musical world. Anyone who had watched and listened to his extraordinary music making could not help but be affected by his passion and reverence for music. Those of us lucky enough to have known and worked with him and availed ourselves of his wisdom, still hold deep affection and respect for him, along with a feeling that we have been blessed many times over.
According to journalist Peter Gutmann (, “No musician in the history of America touched so many people so deeply and in so many ways… Hailed as a hero, Bernstein was able to popularize the classics in a way that no previous musician had ever done. An entire generation of Americans was drawn to great music through his television shows… Whatever he did was with his whole heart. Anyone who attended a Bernstein concert left feeling profound wonder not only of music, but also of life itself.”
Many others have documented the greatness of Bernstein through hundreds, if not thousands, of quotes. Celebrated Russian writer Boris Pasternak, upon greeting “Lenny” after a 1959 Moscow concert, said: “You have taken us up to heaven, now we must return to earth. I’ve never felt so close to the aesthetic truth. When I hear you I know why you were born.” Gutmann’s quote from a jaded music veteran embodies Bernstein’s contagious attitude toward music: “When he gets up on the podium, he makes me remember why I wanted to become a musician.”
Bernstein himself said: “Life without music is unthinkable. Music without life is academic. That is why my contact with music is a total embrace… I can do things in the performance of music that if I did on an ordinary street would land me in jail. I can get rid of all kinds of tensions and hostilities. By the time I come to the end of Beethoven's Fifth, I'm a new man.”
At the end of any Bernstein performance, whether listening or performing, we all felt renewed.
I count myself among those fortunate souls whose lives Lenny touched personally. Mesmerized and captivated by his Saturday morning Young People’s Concerts, I found myself less than two decades later gazing worshipfully at him from the front of the first violin section of the Tanglewood Music Center (then called the Berkshire Music Center) Orchestra, able to capture his every gesture, mannerism and raise of the eyebrow like lightning in the bottle of my mind. Studying and performing Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony with Lenny was an unforgettable experience; being married to one of Lenny’s conducting students allowed me extra personal time with our great maestro, hanging out in his conducting classes, chatting with him after rehearsals, and even being invited on rides around the Tanglewood grounds in his huge boat of a car. A few years later, as a violinist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, I was ecstatic to again have the privilege and delight of working with Leonard Bernstein.
From the moment Jerome Robbins burst into Lenny’s tiny studio apartment in the Carnegie Hall building in 1943 with the idea for a ballet about three sailors on leave in New York City, Robbins became a major force in Lenny’s life. But in 1949 when Robbins proposed a contemporized version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the trajectory of Lenny’s career changed irrevocably. Even now, almost fifty-six years after West Side Story debuted on Broadway, hardly a day goes by without a performance of this beloved work taking place somewhere in the world, in professional, school, or amateur versions. This past summer I attended two astonishing productions of this masterpiece: a live concert version of the entire Broadway symphonic score, with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Concert Hall; and another at Tanglewood with David Newman and the Boston Symphony Orchestra accompanying a screening of the 1961 film. Each version was very different, and each was uniquely satisfying to witness.
Maestro Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony are the first musical entity to have received permission from all four West Side Story rights holders (the estates of Bernstein, Robbins, Laurents and Sondheim) to perform the complete music to the work in a live concert setting with live singers. This groundbreaking world premiere consisted of all the music from the original Broadway show, in an orchestration identical to the one used by the Broadway pit orchestra during the work’s debut in 1957. As evident from the photo, this orchestration does not include violas. [All SFSO photos courtesy of Jessica Vosk]
 As legend has it, Bernstein was not enamored of the quality of the violists at the Winter Garden Theatre, but Musicians’ Union rules required him to employ the whole compliment of players. Bernstein got around the rule simply by leaving out the violas from the orchestration and doubling the inner voices with violins and cellos. He had not only a brilliant mind but also a clever one!

I was fortunate to attend Opening Night and parts of four other sold-out performances of the San Francisco run. Thus I was able to study the brilliant Bernstein score, an absolute thrill to hear live, in amazing detail, and to acquaint myself with the gifted young cast, several of whom I met personally. These youthful singers impressed me with their formidable talent, exuberant energy, and infectious enthusiasm, and more than once their performances brought tears to my eyes.
In the cast, Cheyenne Jackson, who has become known for his work in Broadway’s Xanadu and TV’s Glee and 30 Rock, gave a dramatically captivating and musically satisfying rendering of the leading role of Tony. His Maria, Alexandra Silber, complemented his exuberance with vocal loveliness and a dramatically touching performance. Their two voices blended perfectly. Jessica Vosk (Anita) steamed up the stage with her fiery, dynamite sensuality, outstanding voice and impressive ability to project every word. (It was refreshing to hear the original “As long as he’s hot” lyrics restored from the film version.) Kevin Vortmann’s gorgeous baritone gave a human element to the role of Jets leader Riff, and Kelly Markgraf’s Bernardo blazed with intensity. As “A Girl” performing the goose-bump producing “Somewhere,” Julia Bullock used her Juilliard-trained operatic voice to striking advantage. The opening Jets chorus rocked the house, electrifying the audience and setting the tone for a series of performances that increased in intensity over the run.
As Bernstein’s most prominent protégé, Maestro Tilson Thomas’s affinity for his mentor’s music was in clear evidence at any given moment, from serious to swinging, emphasizing contrasts in mood and paying special attention to the wide spectrum of percussion instruments that Bernstein included in his carefully wrought score. Adding to the excitement of Opening Night, Rita Moreno was in attendance to cheer on the cast, especially her “Anita” counterpart, Jessica Vosk. Having sprained her ankle that day, Moreno tooled around in a wheelchair, but that did not cramp her style; she was as ebullient as ever, and her presence was a true inspiration to the young singers.
 These thrilling San Francisco Symphony performances were recorded live for a CD release in 2014. I plan on being among the first in line to purchase one.
On July 13, conductor David Newman and the Boston Symphony Orchestra gave the first-ever live Tanglewood performance of the complete Bernstein film score and screening of West Side Story to a capacity audience at the Shed. Bernstein’s ties to Tanglewood are profound. Since his student days in Serge Koussevitzky’s first conducting class at the Music Center in 1940, Lenny remained a constant presence, inspiring students and audiences alike with his love of music and commitment to teaching future generations to honor the noblest of arts.
The film, shown on multiple big screens in the Shed and on the lawn, was screened with innovative formatting, courtesy of MGM Studios, which digitally restored in High Definition the original United Artists print, revealing details that had been lost over the decades. Curious as to how the vocals and dialogue could be played through the Tanglewood sound system, while the live Boston Symphony replaced the original orchestra soundtrack, I learned that this was done with a new source-separation technology, developed by high-tech firms Chace Audio in Burbank and Paris-based Audionamix. The software isolates the vocal tracks while digitally extracting the original orchestra track, thus allowing for the film to be accompanied by the full compliment of BSO players. The result was a luxurious melding of top-notch film making with the extraordinary sound of a first-rate orchestra.
In addition to the above challenges, the original musical materials for the film score had been lost. The fantastic team at the Leonard Bernstein Office in New York, which included senior vice president Paul Epstein, senior music editor Garth Edwin Sunderland, and associate producer Eleonor Sandresky, looked high and low for the film music. After an exhaustive search, they finally discovered the original score in the private collections of Johnny Green, the film’s conductor, at Columbia University; and of the film’s original director, Robert Wise, at the University of Southern California. Working tirelessly to capture Bernstein’s original intent for the film music, a whole new score was created from those materials, restoring and adapting the 465-page orchestration for live performance, including the entire end-credit music. A new engraving of the score included extra percussion, saxophones, guitar and mandolin, as well as “screech” trumpets, whose “rock the house” wailing whipped the audience into frenzy.
Classically trained veteran Hollywood conductor and composer Newman, who conducted the premiere of this version in 2011 with the New York Philharmonic for the fiftieth anniversary of the film’s debut, assessed the work as the score progressed.
Newman’s appreciation of the unique mélange of musical theater, classical symphonic and operatic composition, pop, Latin and other elements, showed in his interpretation of the Bernstein score. His job was complicated: synchronizing the live orchestra with the film necessitated wearing headphones playing a click track, plus the use of a small monitor near the podium with a moving color-coded light bar to indicate the film’s starts and stops and cues, while simultaneously conducting a one hundred-piece orchestra. No small feat, but Newman carried it off with expertise and aplomb, giving the music a chance to shine.
Bernstein’s youngest daughter, Nina Bernstein Simmons, who attended the performance, felt the resulting score was much as her father would have intended, and that the new live-orchestra version of his work would have thrilled him. Her introduction to the capacity audience just after the intermission, along with four of the original Jets and Sharks from the film, provided an extra element of excitement in an already exhilarating evening. For those who missed this remarkable event, the performance will be repeated in February of 2014, at Symphony Hall in Boston.
After five-plus decades West Side Story continues to thrill audiences with its captivating interpretation of a classic story. Its profound emotional impact has only deepened over the years. The two versions of the piece that I witnessed left me breathless, each in its own distinctive way. As I became increasingly familiar with the details of this dazzling work, dramatized so effectively with young performers of yesterday and today, I developed a heightened awareness of the scope of Bernstein’s genius.
With the sounds of Lenny’s timeless music still resounding in my ears, I not only came away from the experience with a renewed appreciation of his brilliant score, but also with a new bottom line to Shakespeare’s immortal story:
If you want to avoid trouble, don’t give your daughter a bedroom with a balcony.
2 years ago | |
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By Douglas Neslund
He stood as in prayer, for a long half minute after the final tritone wafted out into Walt Disney Concert Hall while over two thousand hearts beat as one, half afraid to breathe and half not wanting to break the sacred stillness. Finally, James Conlon lowered his baton to allow tumultuous release of the collective tension.
The vehicle for this triumph was Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, Opus 66, arguably the greatest composition of the 20th century, but elevated by Maestro Conlon pre-performance to one of the monuments of music of all time.

Benjamin Britten
Britten’s 100thcentenary is drawing to a close, and his music has been heard by many organizations throughout the year. The impact of this man’s creative genius has been rightfully elevated to new heights.
The impressions left by War Requiem are deeply felt through the perfect marriage of his music and the poetry of Wilfred Owen, himself a victim of World War I, a poet who would certainly have been Britain’s poet laureate of the time had he survived just one more week, bits of Scripture, the Latin Mass for the Dead, and Britten’s own pacifist convictions (reversing the Abrahamic story of the imminent sacrifice of Isaac by slaying his son … “and half the seed of Europe, one by one” … instead of the proffered Ram of Pride, and in so doing, pointing a dagger of condemnation at the rulers of the countries involved in the “war to end all wars.”)

Wilfred Owen
This perfect amalgam of inspired genius requires a large orchestra, a chamber orchestra, a large adult choir, a children’s choir, and three soloists. The original cast was purposefully drawn from enemy countries in World War II: the Soviet Union, Germany and the United Kingdom; the intended soloists, Galina Vishnevskaya, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Britten’s long-term partner, Peter Pears, with the premiere performance taking place in a bombed-out Coventry Cathedral. Subsequent performances spread throughout the world.
On this occasion, the artists were: The Colburn Orchestra and members of the USC Thornton Symphony; participating choirs included: USC Thornton Chamber Singers, USC Thornton Concert Choir, Bob Cole Conservatory Chamber Choir, Cal State Long Beach, Cal State Fullerton University Singers, Chapman University Singers, New Zealand Youth Choir, and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus. All singers were superbly prepared by their own respective directors and assembled by LA Master Chorale’s Grant Gershon, delivering a marvelous feast of often challenging music. The instrumentalists were in as close to professional form as pre-professional players could possibly be. To single out any individual or orchestral choir would be unfair to the rest, but the brass and percussion were simply marvelous, as was the chamber orchestra and leader Radu Paponiu. Bravi tutti !
Maestro Conlon
Throughout the performance, Maestro Conlon maintained tight control over the assembled performers, with the assistance of Anne Tomlinson in the highest balcony with her “angelic host” representing the souls of war dead with just the right touch of other-worldly innocence and separation from the horrors of war. They were accompanied on the organ by Christoph Bull. Considering the vast distance between the children in the highest balcony and Mr. Bull sitting on stage, coordination was not easily achieved.
Perhaps no trio of soloists will be able to replicate the original trio, probably because so many have heard the iconic recording produced in 1963 that left such an indelible impression. But the three soloists at this event were of high quality. One could quibble about tenor Joseph Kaiser’s quavery delivery of the final phrase of Dona nobis pacem that Peter Pears made forever the standard, but as drama, Mr. Kaiser achieved his own measure of success. Baritone Phillip Addis displayed a voice rich in tone and textual awareness; he and Mr. Kaiser bracketed the conductor’s podium, while soprano Tamera Wilson was placed, as in the original, up in the front-center of the chorus women. Such placement tends, even in acoustically excellent Walt Disney Concert Hall, to dissolve low-tessitura passages into the multitudes around her and the orchestra in front of her, so that her impact lay in the high-altitude opportunities, such as the opening of the Sanctus. One would have liked to hear her down onstage with the gentlemen.
Aside from one choral entrance of the sopranos that appeared to be missed, the music making was superb. For those whose choral “ears” are attuned to the Los Angeles Master Chorale, one had to remind oneself that maturity adds weight to a voice, and any comparison with these relative youth only demonstrates how great their training has been; the future of choral music is bright.
Britten’s truly creepy orchestra scoring of the duet “Strange Meeting” sets up a metaphorical encounter of killer and killed in the afterlife. After a few exchanges, one states, “I am the enemy you killed, my friend,” while the children’s chorus chants In Paradisum. What a profound cross-reference of text and music! It would be difficult to find in all serious music the equal in context and drama.

For all the underlying irony and bitterness of music and text, Britten interjects moments of pure, radiant joy, as in the Hosanna of the Sanctus, thus giving yet another dimension to the drama. Yet the first sound we hear is also the last: that dreaded tritone, an augmented fourth interval: C to F#, and with that, the War Requiem ends as it begins, steeped in fear of futile, future wars.

Photos from Wikipedia from various sources
2 years ago | |
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 By Douglas Neslund

There is no subtle way to unleash or finish Carl Orff’s popular Carmina burana in performance. From the very downbeat of O Fortuna (Wheel of Fortune), one gets a lap- and earful of youthful fun and games set to full chorus and orchestra by Carl Orff, the Bavarian composer better known in some quarters for his elementary music education system. In Carmina, Orff seeks to evoke basic emotional involvement through unapologetic, driving rhythms (early minimalism!) and exotic instrumentation and vocalisms.
Orff found the manuscripts in the Bavarian State Library in Munich, not (as noted elsewhere) in the Benedictine Abbey in Benediktbeuern, a quaintly beautiful bend in the Bavarian road from Munich to Northern Italy via Austria, despite the town’s name in the title. How the Latin and Middle High German texts arrived in Benediktbeuern from their likely beginnings in Kloster Neustift in Brixen, a German-speaking village of Northern Italy, is unknown.
Kloster Neustift, Brixen, Italy
In any case, it is thought that goliards, unemployed youth of the day, spread the genre throughout civilized Europe. As a generation, they were not unlike Occupy youth of today, openly criticizing both civil and clerical authority through satirical poetry and prose.
The 24 poems and narratives chosen by Orff from the original 254 is that of bawdy sex and backgammon, and in some cases probably not the actual stuff of monks’ life in 13th century Alpine Europe. In fact, it is thought by some that texts appearing to be “love songs” are really satirical tributes or spoofs of the dead, or even the Church itself.
Soloists in Carmina burana on this evening of glorious choral and orchestral music-making were Stacey Tappan, a soprano capable of singing the very wide ranging score; José Adán Pérez, a baritone who emoted appropriately (that is, the entire time, including stage entrances and exits) and displayed a ringing voice spoiled by too many out-of-tune entrances; and Timothy Gonzales, who portrayed the dying goose on the spit with equal portions of self parody and helpless falsetto.
Although Orff’s manuscript stipulates a boys’ choir in two of the movements, the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus (Anne Tomlinson, director), were employed in that role. Interestingly, the composer stated to Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden, the director of the Tölzer Knabenchor prior to the premiere performance and recording, that it was his intention that the boys should sound like five- or six-year old “quackers” and not polished singers. In that regard, the LACC kids failed to quack, singing instead with their expected perfection of pitch, tone and absolutely unwiggly stage demeanor.
Steve Scharf assembled a wonderful orchestra for this happy occasion, proving once again that Los Angeles stands second to no other place on earth when it comes to world-class musicians. As we have said so many times throughout the past decade, the Los Angeles Master Chorale stands second to no other chorus on earth.
All of the above forces dedicated their infinite talents to Maestro Grant Gershon, whose attention to detail is phenomenal. Watching him work is a joy to behold. Nothing is missed, singers and players alike are never in doubt, and the result is as close to recording-session perfection as a live concert can possibly be. Finding new superlatives to describe Master Chorale performances is becoming ever more difficult!
The opening opus, minus the children’s chorus, was Giuseppe Verdi’s Te Deum, the last of four parts to his tetralogy Quattro pezzi sacri, composed in 1895-96 and published in Verdi’s 85th year (1898), a major work for double chorus and large orchestra.
The Te Deum is not a long work, but packs a mighty wallop where required. The Chorale women were particularly stunning on their several a cappella entrances.
The only reminders that we were not actually sitting in a recording session all happened within the space of a minute, just before intermission: a flubbed trumpet attack on a particular note brought to the audience’s attention by Maestro Gershon, a peculiar wobbly solo soprano, perhaps made even wobblier by the trumpet’s goof, and when the moment that was no longer magical ended, a cell phone in the audience rang on and on until applause drowned its ugly intrusion.
The two works on the program shared a common “wall of sound” fortissimo+ opportunity that, with the Master Chorale sitting in the benches above the staged orchestra, brilliantly showed the true acoustic balance of Walt Disney Concert Hall. (When the musicians are all down on stage, there can be a “sizzle” effect at least for those patrons sitting in the third balcony.) What we heard last night was astonishing clarity. The Master Chorale has, in recent years, been especially noted for clear textual enunciation, and last night, acoustic translucence was especially brilliant.

Finally, the usually brilliant program notes of Thomas May were sullied by discredited references to Nazism in which Orff was never a participant. No proof exists that he was interested in National Socialism in the slightest; if the Nazis loved his music, that is irrelevant. One would hope that such a canard and libelous reference would once and for all be omitted whenever Carmina burana is performed in the future.
Photo credits: Wikipedia from various sources 
2 years ago | |
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by Rodney Punt

Twenty years ago*, experimental rock-era composer Frank Zappa died of prostate cancer. He left behind a work that has never been performed live in full, a kind of alternate rock opera called 200 Motels. Last night at Disney Hall, the LA Phil presented, in a semi-staged production, the world premiere of 200 Motels - The Suites. From remaining notes of Zappa, it was obvious that he thought highly of this work and he expressed himself clearly as he wrote about it. Because many knew the emotional investment he had put into it, they have assumed it not just worthy, but Zappa's supreme effort.

To the LA Phil's culture history credit, they took on the task for the 10th anniversary celebration of Disney Hall's opening night. The event had the feel of a Seventies happening. The rowdy audience was mostly aging hipsters, with sprinkles of other demographics and ages. They were ready for action at the beginning of the work and gave it a big applause after it concluded. But in-between, the telling expanse of time when it most counted, interest clearly flagged as the work's banal passages droned on.

The action begins when four band members are already debauched and exhausted from small town touring. For all we know they are also stupifed. A fat-bellied character named Cowboy Burt, who looks like Slim Pickens, pistol whips the band members (Zappa's own Mothers of Invention are the model). A soprano takes the predictable road from interviewer to groupie. The action gets grosser and stupider. Props include a barrel of dirt which the strung-out band members wallow in. Later on, several waving, orange-glowing penises make their way down the aisles.

By way of self-justification, the show winds up with a maudlin tribute to all of the world's outcasts and misfits, presumably to make us all forgive the show's previous banalities. Zappa's Ode to Joy for them rhymes "action" with "satisfaction" six or seven times. The Rolling Stones use of the same word in their most famous song of a decade before should have prompted Zappa to avoid it. His lame-brained borrowing of it here grates. But that's just the kind of idiocy that fills the work.

While I can admire the efforts of all the fine talent associated with the production -- Esa Pekka Salonen conducting the game musicians of the LA Phil, the singer/actors, the direction of James Darrah, et al -- I thought the work a pretentious, puerile, extravagant bore. The libretto (too kind a word) was wretched and trite but it thought itself clever and witty. The music was gauche, boring, and proceeded from one unmerited climax to another.

Zappa certainly had ambition and all the documentary evidence suggests he worked hard on this work.  But inherent musical value? Not there. I don't see creative or organizational talent in this score. Zappa's alternate rock had high aspirations and the composer befriended eccentric musicologist Nicholas Slonimsky, but associations do not of themselves great art make and this cross-over into rock opera falls in the middle before it is over anything.

The work was a bloated, self-indulgent mess. Rooted in the Sixties, it is as embalmed as a dead rocker in the early Seventies.

*Corrected from the originally posted thirty years ago.

2 years ago | |
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Preview by Rodney Punt

Einstein on the Beach is finally in Los Angeles after several long and winding road trips over a 37 year period to almost everywhere else. 
Philip Glass’s path-blazing first opera marks the starting point of minimalist music in a theatrical setting.  It was the first post-modern opera. Of the fourteen Glass operas to date, it is still probably most revolutionary in form. With its immediate followers, Satyagraha (1979) and Akhnaten (1983), it formed a trilogy of “portrait operas” of powerful change-agent personalities in human history. The arrival of Einstein on the Beach is an important musical event for Los Angeles.

We might have seen the operashortly after its 1976 premiere in Avignon, France, had the management of the still fledgling LA Opera not deemed it too radical for our audiences. In recent years, LA has been teased with bits and pieces of the work in live performance. Some years ago Santa Monica's Jacaranda series programed the five so-called “Knee Plays” that bookend and bind the various scenes. The tantalizing morsels only whetted collective appetites for more.

The omission of the full opera could have been redeemed last year when its tour got as close as UC Berkeley, but financial concerns trumped it yet again. Even the current LA Opera season had been pre-sold with no Einsteinin its slate. But forget all that. The stars eventually aligned and General Director Plácido Domingo announced on September 12 it was to be a go.
Einstein opens this Friday for a succession of three evening performances at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. More good news: though other hands had restaged the groundbreaking work since its premiere nearly four decades ago, Los Angeles audiences will see the original version of its reunited and now iconic creative team.

Domingo also announced last month that this appearance would likely mark the last collaboration on the 1976 masterpiece by composer Glass, director/designer Robert Wilson, and choreographer Lucinda Childs. “The Los Angeles premiere of Einstein will mark the final North American performances of an international tour that began in 2012. It isn’t like anything that we have ever done before, and I hope that Einstein will entice many new audience members into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for the very first time.”

Speaking of new audiences, contemporary Los Angeles has undergone a sea-change in tastes. What may have intimidated yesterday’s patrons is now a younger crowd’s artistic relish.  Avant-garde works in all genres are in hot demand. As if to underscore LA Opera’s own changed convictions, following last week's Chinese Theater screening of the 3-D Wizard of Oz, I noted young ladies in Einstein wig and mustache get-ups handing out card promotions for the operatic Einstein to curious young crowds up and down trendy Hollywood Blvd.

Patrons will discover the performance of Einstein on the Beach to be far from Dorothy’s operatic Kansas. There is no plot narrative, but a series of mind-portraits in dreamlike tableaus is propelled by the hypnotic score. They are bound together by those Knee Play interludes that reinforce the opera’s ideas as they allow time for scenery changes. Three main scenes in the opera --"Train", "Trial", and "Field/Spaceship" -- allude to Einstein's theory of relativity and his unified field theory. Others reference nuclear weapons, science and popular radio. 

The viewer, however, is not necessarily aware of these allusions. Scenes of various human behaviors such as a train robbery or lovers in the park interweave with abstract, futuristic scenes in a fantasy spaceship. Time travels from historic settings to the future and back again, but it all ends seraphically in the here and now. The cosmic blends with the intimate.

The "star" of the show, Einstein, is, literally, a cypher whose associated imagery is an endless ream of numbers. The eponymous character doesn't sing but plays the violin as did Albert Einstein himself. Violinist Jennifer Koh (top photo, at the left) performs the Einstein character in this production. (Albert Einstein taught himself to play the violin as a boy. While playing the instrument for relaxation in later years he often gained scientific insights.)

The production features the Lucinda Childs Dance Company and the Philip Glass Ensemble, conducted by music director Michael Riesman. Principal performers, in addition to Koh, are Helga Davis, Kate Moran, Jasper Newell, and Charles Williams. The spoken texts come from the writings of Christopher Knowles, Samuel M. Johnson and Lucinda Childs.

The work lasts four and a half hours with no traditional intermissions. The audience may enter and temporarily depart the performance as desired. (Concession services will be available in the Chandler's lobbies throughout the performance.)

Photo by Reginald Donahue/Courtesy the Rothmans
The life story of the opera's subject is particularly relevant to Los Angeles. In the wake of the diaspora of European intellectuals fleeing fascist Europe in the early 1930’s, Albert Einstein resided here on several occasions. Even before his more permanent academic association with Princeton University, local brain trust Cal Tech snapped him up for three extended residencies in Pasadena.

Apropos, the title “Einstein on the Beach” is not a reference to nearby Southern California beaches. Rather, a famous photo (above) documents Einstein’s 1939 summer residence at Nassau Point, Long Island, where he was casually dressed in shorts and sandals with a businessman and friend named Rothman. In that fateful summer Einstein signed a prepared letter to President Roosevelt warning of Nazi plans to invent a nuclear weapon. The missive would instigate the Manhattan Project and, thirty-five years later, become the pivotal inspiration for the subject matter of the Wilson/Glass opera.
The impact of Einstein on the Beach was in many ways as shattering to the world of music -- certainly of opera -- as that of Einstein’s discoveries to the world of theoretical physics. Whatever one thinks of the entirety of this unconventional work, it is an experience not to be missed and it is now within the reach of Southern Californians to hear and see it for themselves. 
Don’t miss the opportunity.
---ooo---Performance details
Einstein on the Beach, An Opera in Four ActsMusic/Lyrics: Philip Glass
Direction/Set and light design: Robert WilsonChoreography by Lucinda Childs

Dates and times:
Friday, October 11, 2013, at 6:30pm Saturday, October 12, 2013, at 6:30pm
Sunday, October 13, 2013, at 2:00pm
LocationDorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles CA 90012.For disability access, call 213.972.0777 or email
Ticket purchase options:In person, LA Opera Box Office at Dorothy Chandler PavilionBy phone at 213.972.8001Online at
Except as noted, all photos are by LA Opera and used by their permission.Rodney Punt may be contacted at

2 years ago | |
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Review by Joan Goldsmith Gurfield

Jason Stadtlander’s The Steel Van Man is a fast-paced thriller in the gruesome, explicitly gory mode of works like Michael Connelly’s The Poet. Without revealing too much of the plot, this reviewer was immediately hooked on the premise and the memorable opening, which cites a Russian scientific study and moves quickly to its working out in the present day. The page-turning aspects of the plot (if one is willing to suspend disbelief for the large pile-up of coincidences) keep the interest level high.

The mind of a serial killer is made known to the reader, and we are torn between believing that person to be slightly sympathetic or believing him to be completely psychotic. This uneasy balance created by Stadtlander, and the fact that he constantly ups the ante for his characters throughout the book, make it an exciting read.

The book was not well-served, however, by the many proofreading errors and some imprecise and ungrammatical writing (i.e. “fair” for “fare,” “his professional FBI appearance emanating from him like a classic painting,” and a few dangling modifiers and problems with layout).

If the editors had paid as much attention to these details as they did to the lovely beginnings of each chapter, imprinted with the shadow of a tree, and the changes in point of view, highlighted with what looked like a knife dripping blood, the reading experience would have been smoother, and more likely even scarier.

Reviewer Joan Goldsmith Gurfield is Professor of English at East Los Angeles College
2 years ago | |
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by Rodney Punt 
The Santa Fe Opera’s top laurels for the 2013 season were not necessarily won by its most anticipated productions. Of the five works staged, three were fashioned around star singers -- a world premiere tragedy, an Offenbach farce, and a rarely performed late work of Rossini. Of those, it was the Rossini, with ensemble revivals from Mozart and Verdi, that most impressed.

Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, Rossini’s La Donna del Lagoand Verdi’s La Traviata revealed in their proximate stagings how the art of lyric drama developed independently from Wagner’s theories on opera as drama. They trace a line that veered away from the Baroque-pedestaled heroes that Mozart inherited and toward flesh and blood characters who captured the hearts of ordinary people. That progression led Italian opera, via Rossini and his bel canto followers, through Verdi and toward Verismo, Puccini and beyond.
Figaro's revival at SFO was notable for solid (in one case stolid) casting. Zachary Nelson’s Figaro was the stolid entry, well sung but too maturely masculine for the wily, quick-on-his-feet valet. Standouts, however, were Lisette Oropesa’s Susanna, of wiry stage animation and pleasingly rapid vibrato, and Emily Fons’ scene-stealing trouser role of Cherubino, one of the finest versions of adolescent male mannerisms I’ve ever seen.
Daniel Okulitch and Susanna Philips as Count and Countess Almaviva were both tall and of regal bearing. Even with Phillips suffering vocal control issues, her Countess was the soul of long-suffering love for Okulitch’s noble but philandering Count. Dale Travis and Susanne Mentzer, as the sketchy Doctor Bartolo and his conniving Marcellina, were every bit up to their naughty but redeemable natures.
Bruce Donnell’s staging had comical dazzle reigning over reflection. Busybody servants, flower picking and scurrying about, added a touch of the surreal to the proceedings. Paul Brown’s costumes were stylized traditional and his compatible sets slid efficiently from scene to scene. After an overture that skipped along a little too fast for the comfort of the woodwinds, conductor John Nelson relaxed the pacing; his orchestra, however, exhibited occasional rough textures.


Mozart’s Da Ponte operas had their greatest impact not in nationalistic trending Austria and Germany but in Gioachino Rossini’s Italy. Born a year after Mozart’s death, and revering him, the Italian master is most identified as the spinner of brilliant opera buffas like The Barber of Seville, a sister work to Figaroand one of three Beaumarchais social satires prophetic of Europe’s fracturing social structure. But trends in the lyric stage north of the Alps favored greater dramatic cohesion. During his late career management of Naples’s Teatro di San Carlo, the Italian master responded with similar reforms, even as he catered to a stubborn demand for vocal pyrotechnics. These hybrid works are now often revived.
SFO General Director Charles MacKay is doing for the neglected Neapolitan works of Rossini what founder John Crosby used to do for the works of Richard Strauss. Last year’s Maometto(better known in its later version as The Siege of Corinth) was a triumph. This year’s La Donna del Lago may not quite match that achievement, but it was plenty good.
Lago was the first of many operas to be based on the works of Sir Walter Scott, who inflamed nineteenth century imaginations with brooding stories of Scotland’s colorful and violent history. It finds Rossini’s creative powers churning out musical moods and colors far north of Italy’s sunny skies. In the manner of Shakespeare’s late plays, the work is a melodramatic romance. Happiness in the end is won only through much anxiety in the beginning and a couple near tragedies in between.
Paul Curran’s production was dark and moody, befitting its Scottish setting. There was no lake per se, but the back of Kevin Knight’s stage was open to Santa Fe’s billowing skies and all was dark attitude and accommodating storm on the evening I attended. The story takes place amid a power struggle between King James and his independent minded Highlanders. It offers opportunity, fully exploited by Rossini, for atmospheric music and extended vocal ensembles that shorten traditional number arias in favor of long musico-dramatic segments. Many anticipate later operatic scenes in the nineteenth century.
The story has famous beauty, Elena (a radiant Joyce DiDonato), daughter of Highlander Duglas of Angus (the dark-voiced Wayne Tigges), in love with Malcom Groeme (passionate mezzo Marianna Pizzolato in a trouser role). King Giacomo V (a noble Lawrence Brownlee), their antagonist posing as Uberto to gain entrance behind enemy lines, also pursues Elena. Complicating matters, Angus wants his daughter engaged to warrior chief Rodrigo di Dhu (an impetuous René Barbara). The love quadrangle twists frequently, with harrowing episodes of war, betrayal and misunderstanding, but it resolves amicably under the political and personal astuteness of Elena, aided by the authority of a royal ring “Uberto” had early on given her for protection. The King’s forgiveness and forbearance echoes the enlightened humanity of Mozart’s singspiels.
All the principals contributed to a moving performance. DiDonato’s performance, however, was no less than stunning, as she retained coloratura freshness and heft throughout the long evening and had energy and spirit to spare for her breathtaking parting aria, ‘Tanti affetti’ (so many emotions). Stephen Lord’s orchestra captured the brooding atmospherics splendidly, especially within the delectable woodwinds led by the grace of clarinetist Todd Levy.


Verdi’s hot human emotions are not typically compatible with cool minimalist stagings, but the revival of Laurent Pelly’s Traviatawas an exception. Chantal Thomas’ cascading monochrome cubes ably shifted attention from colorful decoration to character definition. Its controversial 2009 premiere at the SFO had Natalie Dessay leaping precariously from cube to cube. But the choreography was toned down here and the scheme’s simplicity became a virtue in the intense interaction between Violetta’s courtesan, her lover Alfredo and his father Germont.
The symbolic identity of the tubes is heralded by the prelude’s funeral procession bearing a coffin across the stage. First act partiers use them as platforms, unwittingly dancing on their own graves. The lovers’ escape to the country has their lids open in sky-blue projections. Shut later, as the mood darkens, the principals are arrayed on them in a power-competing pyramid, with Germont on top. Closing the circle, the cubes are crape-draped in the last act’s reprisal of the funereal mood.
As Violetta, Brenda Rae’s fresh, resplendent voice imbued her fine portrayal with shattering vulnerability. She seems to have emerged from nowhere but has in fact been working in Europe to ever increasing renown. Her pathetic Alfredo, the ardent Michael Fabiano, was a worthy match vocally and dramatically. Veteran Roland Wood’s wooly-voiced Germont was not the willful tyrant as is sometimes (incorrectly) rendered, but the reluctant enforcer of an immutable social code. Leo Hussain’s orchestra surrounded its singers with meticulous sympathy.
If I have ever seen a better Traviata, none ever so moved me. It is believed that Verdi saw in Violetta a blend of the two most important women in his life: his tragically early-deceased wife and his gossiped-about, faithful lover (and later wife) Giuseppina Strepponi. Verdi poured out his big heart in a long string of poignant melodies in this immortal masterpiece. Those in the theater that evening felt in the presence of a rare artistic achievement.


Verdi’s supreme dramatic powers were nowhere in evidence at the world premiere of Theodore Morrison’s much anticipated first opera, Oscar, based on the tragic last phase of Oscar Wilde’s career. With gay rights achieving significant breakthroughs, its timing had been propitious. Wilde’s brilliant theatrical success, ending in sudden persecution and an early death would seem tailor-made for dramatic treatment, not to mention opportunity for a retrospective martyr’s crown. Casting Wilde as a countertenor (a Baroque era voice-type), with no less than superstar David Daniels in the title role, might also have proved a daring move for modern music drama. 
Yet the opportunity for significant dramatic statement was fumbled, due not so much to the solid if episodic score as the tepid drama the 75-year-old Morrison co-wrote with veteran stage director (and Wilde scholar) John Cox. The work focused solely on Wilde’s after-trial guilty verdict and jail time for sodomy. Its large doses of rumination and regret lacked conflict, not to mention enough appearance of Wilde’s vaunted wit. The principals sang well, especially a resplendent Daniels, and the staging was elaborate, inventive and well executed. But with little opportunity for Wilde’s personality to emerge or engage, Daniels’ star power could not prevent the work’s launch as stillborn. (Full review here.)
The premiere was preceded by several panel discussions on Oscar Wilde organized by the SFO at the Santa Fe Woman’s Club. Among the distinguished panel of academics was also the informed presence and commentary of Wilde’s grandson, Merlin Holland. The Santa Fe REP presented a bracing reading of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde by Moises Kaufman, a verbatim enactment of the trials. With its rousing urgency and the transcribed repartee of Wilde himself, it might admirably have served as Morrison’s libretto. File that lost opportunity under “What Might Have Been.”

Oscar Wilde once observed that “America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.” His words had resonance in nineteenth century America and in certain areas at certain times they may even resonate today. Wilde may have regretted uttering them when he found out what confronted him back in “civilized” England just a few years later. After his prison time was served, he longed to return to the States but was never able to make it back. More's the pity for him and us.


Where the SFO’s advocacy of Rossini has been charmed the last two years, its recent productions of Jacques Offenbach have operated under a cloud. Christopher Alden’s 2010 Tales of Hoffmann commendably reconstructed that great work, left incomplete at the composer’s death, but his staging was over-conceptualized and excessively cluttered. The new production of The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein -- designed as a star vehicle for eminent mezzo and New Mexico native Susan Graham -- was cleaner than Hoffmann but the work itself is weak and dated. The cast sang in French and dialogued their gags in English.
Graham’s Duchess is a cougar on the make. Ruling by whim, she demotes a general and replaces him with the private in whom she has a taken a certain interest. In love with another, he squirms his way through the plot. The program notes would have us believe this an anti-war satire, but that literary conceit proves hollow when the private-cum-general defeats the enemy and brings home glory at seemingly no cost. Director Lee Blakeley’s relocation of the action from Europe to a Midwestern military academy allowed a parade of period American costumes as seen in classic film musicals, combined with the awkward logic of a Midwestern town “Duchy” in a shooting war with its neighbor. (On second thought, that may just be where we as a nation are headed.)

With bun dress and top hat, Graham resembled a camped-up version of Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis. Adding to the in-joke stickiness, the glancing girls and prancing boys surrounding her tried to sustain this airy-fairy soufflé with too many empty-calorie jokes and not enough satirical protein. (Lackey to Duchess after an inspection in ranks: “Did you see how they looked at your privates?”) The fully restored score made for a long evening and felt padded with second-drawer musical numbers. Graham’s voice took some time to warm up and her usually effervescent presence appeared to be paced with at best an obligatory cheeriness. Ditto for the rest of the cast. The operetta may be enduring but on this evening it was anything but endearing. It was a Gerolstein badly in need of Geritol.
It has become customary for the SFO to sponsor a vocal recital each summer. Last year’s featured a beaming Susan Graham in a selection of idiomatic French opera arias. This year’s had dramatic soprano Christine Brewer, with pianist Joseph Illick, in Britten’s Cabaret Songs and Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, with her encore the “Liebestod” from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. The latter allowed a nostalgic look back to repertoire that was once a staple of Brewer’s operatic career.
Despite a couple of less than stellar productions, the 2013 season proved the Santa Fe Opera once again in the top tier of the USA’s preeminent summer destinations to savor the lyric muse.
Rodney Punt can be contacted at
Performances reviewedMarriage of Figaro, August 3La Donna del Lago, July 26La Traviata, August 2Oscar, July 27The GRand Duchess of Gerolstein, July 30Christine Brewer recital, August 4
2 years ago | |
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By Douglas Neslund

Maestro Grant Gershon turned around and said, simply, “Wow!” as he prepared to conduct a stage and side aisles filled with current and former members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale in the grand finale work of a three-hour, emotionally-charged program jam-packed with morsels of musical meals served up by the Chorale’s four Music Directors over the previous 49 seasons. As outlined below, each selection could not have been better served by the 110 current (and in the finale, dozens of former) members.
Prior to each of the four tributes, exceptionally well-produced videos of each Music Director were shown, taking us back in time and reliving the uniquely special qualities of each. Those in the audience who lived through all four eras had something to cherish, with any fleeting negative memories thoroughly scrubbed. Especially touching and often funny were filmed recollections by those who sang under one or more Music Directors.
Maestro Gershon walked onstage prior to the official beginning to bring the audience current with Paul Salamunovich’s serious health condition, which had induced last rites earlier in the week, only to turn to a more stabilized condition due to the prayers of many, according to the family. Continued prayers were encouraged. The final two entries in the Paul Salamunovich Era (“Hold On!” and “The Lord Bless You and Keep You”) elicited numerous leaky eyes both in audience and singers.
The opening item in the Grant Gershon Era was a reprise of the 40-part Thomas Tallis Spem in alium, sung from various points in Walt Disney Concert Hall by two or three choristers on a part, that was so transparent, so beautifully sung, it might arguably be the outstanding musical entrée of the evening. Or the Palestrina Tu es Petrus. Or the wonderful chorale arrangements of Roger Wagner or Shawn Kirchner.

ROGER WAGNER ERA (1964-1986)Tomaso Luigi da Vittoria | Ave MariaPierre Passereau | Il est bel et bonPaul Chihara | Kyrie – Sally Gardens from Missa Carminum BrevisStephen Collins Foster | I Dream of Jeanie (arr. Roger Wagner)            Steve Pence, baritoneStephen Collins Foster | Western Songs (arr. Roger Wagner)            Lesley Leighton, conductor | Abdiel Gonzalez, baritoneEv'ry time I feel the spirit (arr. Jester Hairston)Danny Boy (arr. Roger Wagner)
JOHN CURRIE ERA (1986-1991)Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart | Ave verum corpusMy Love's in Germany (arr. Mack Wilberg)            Lisa Edwards and Shawn Kirchner, pianoI'll Ay Call in by Yon Town (arr. Mack Wilberg)            Lisa Edwards and Shawn Kirchner, piano
Auld Lang Syne - Pasadena Scottish Pipes & Drums – sung by all. Nice touch!
PAUL SALAMUNOVICH ERA (1991-2001)Gregorian Chant | Veni Creator SpiritusGiovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina | Tu es PetrusMaurice Duruflé | Tu es Petrus            Lesley Leighton, conductorMaurice Duruflé | Ubi caritas            Lesley Leighton, conductorMorten Lauridsen | O Magnum MysteriumHold On! (arr. Jester Hairston)The Lord Bless You and Keep You (arr. John Rutter)
GRANT GERSHON ERA (2001-present)Thomas Tallis | Spem in aliumHyowon Woo | ME-NA-RI            Sunjoo Yeo, soprano | Theresa Dimond and Timm Boatman, percussionWilliam Walker | The Good Old Way (Shape-note hymn)Sergei Rachmaninoff | Rejoice, O Virgin from All-Night VigilEdward Kennedy (Duke) Ellington | The Lord's PrayerGaspar Fernandes | Dame albricia mano Anton            Ayana Haviv, soprano | Alice Kirwan Murray, mezzo soprano            Alex Acuña, percussionShawn Kirchner | Unclouded Day, from Heavenly Home
Finale: Randall Thompson's familiar Alleluiawith current and former LAMC singers, which never sounded more musical – followed by champagne for all.
Prior to the concert, the space and time usually filled by a pre-concert chat with Maestro Gershon and KUSC’s Alan Chapman was given over to an outstanding display of artifacts, still projections and videos of each Music Director, and plenty of room for people to meet other people, reconnect with old friends, and reminisce about olden times. This brought the entire evening into focus on the Master Chorale's legacies and achievements over 49 seasons, and began the 50th on a wonderfully celebratory note.

2 years ago | |
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By Douglas Neslund
Twelve seasons ago, your scribe sat down with the youthful Grant Gershon, then as now a musician who appeared much younger than his 40 years, to mine his dreams and corral his thoughts on assuming the Music Directorship of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and following in the footsteps of its iconic founding director Roger Wagner, and Wagner’s successors John Currie and Paul Salamunovich.
It’s safe to say that in the intervening dozen years, the 52-year old Maestro Gershon has surpassed even his own goals and dreams, rebuilt an audience, expanded the season, and carved out new musical territories for the LAMC and its audiences.
We met in an obscure coffee roasting house south of downtown Pasadena on one of the hotter, more sultry days of August.
In our far-ranging conversation on the eve of a High Sierra family vacation, he spoke freely of his stewardship of the organization, of the current state of affairs of the Master Chorale, and where he would like it to go as the Master Chorale enters its 50th Anniversary year.
Maestro Gershon’s musical life with the Los Angeles Master Chorale included singing in a performance of Fauré’s Requiem in Roger Wagner’s initial Master Chorale, and accompanying John Currie’s performances on harpsichord of Bach’s B-Minor Mass and St. Matthew Passion.
While the noisy interior of our surroundings drowned out an occasional answer or comment, LA Opus deeply appreciates Maestro Gershon’s taking the time to answer our questions, which follow:

LA Opus (LAO): It’s been very interesting listening to the Master Chorale over the span of time in hearing the differences and changes in Baroque performance practice in particular, from a Romantic-era patina to a cleaner, more translucent and nuánced style.
Grant Gershon (GG): It’s a move in the right direction, in my opinion.
LAO: On a scale of one to ten, ten being where the Master Chorale is now, when you first heard the Master Chorale, what would you have rated it?
GG: It’s a little hard to answer, but with the ears and sensibility that I had at the time, it was a ten. The very first time I heard the Chorale was as an audience member for a performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony with Zubin Mehta. I always felt like this was the world standard, this was the best work I had ever heard. I can’t necessarily say with the ears, sensibilities and experience that I have now how I would rate it, but certainly at the time it was the case.
LAO: Would that hold true in the Currie years as well?
GG: That was a difficult time for the Chorale, clearly, both in retrospect and I think at the time as well, frankly I didn’t hear the Chorale a lot except for the performances I was in.
LAO: And then Paul Salamunovich came along and things shifted back in the direction of Roger Wagner’s approach.
GG: Again, I wasn’t privy to the decision-making process of how the directors were selected during that period, but the sense was that there was a feeling that the Chorale needed to protect its roots and find what people still referred to as ‘that signature sound’. And Paul was clearly the person to return the group to that.
LAO: As I recall, I heard that John Currie basically cleared out most of Roger’s singers.
GG: I heard that as well, and at the time there was something of a blood bath. He wanted a different sound and in so doing wanted to slay the dragon, so to speak.
I’ve looked around at other organizations going through growing pains, and it’s always a difficult time when you have a founding music director that moves on, and especially what we can imagine of Roger’s personality that was larger than life. In fairness to John, and almost anybody coming into that circumstance, it’s a tough road to hoe.
LAO: [Currie’s] personality was the mirror opposite of Roger’s. Roger always said he was going to write an autobiography and call it “Tour de Farce.”
When you auditioned for the job, were there other candidates of whom you were aware?
GG: Yes, they cast the net pretty wide, and the search went on frankly for the better part of a year, as I recall. I know that I had multiple interviews followed by a rehearsal audition with the group. My understanding is that there were four finalists, each of whom were invited to work with the group for 45 minutes in a variety of different repertoire and styles. I know that the singers had a strong input and their opinions were solicited as well.
LAO: Twelve years have past, twelve glorious years. In the coming season, how do you pick from those children which to bring back in retrospect for the new season?
GG: That’s a hard question. In this season, there was to be an opening concert where we wanted to include signature a cappella pieces from the four music directors, and then over the course of the season as well, a portion of retrospectives of pieces from my time with the Chorale as well as new pieces we have commissioned, and other new projects that are coming up. So it’s true that the choosing of what was representative – there were a few no-brainers – I knew from the beginning that we would have to do a B-Minor Mass, because it is one of the defining mountain-top pieces and it was the first piece that the Chorale performed under Roger as the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
LAO: And that will be performed in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion?
GG: Actually, it will be the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Last week I was in the plaza of the Music Center and saw the poster for the new season, and it shows the B-Minor Mass will be performed in the Chandler Pavilion as though connecting the past and present, but no, there will be two performances in Disney Hall.
LAO: We also read somewhere that the numbers of singers will be replicated as well as the old style …
GG: Well, not the old style actually, at least my intention was to honor what I considered to be the mid-century tradition of Bach performance by doing the piece with the full Chorale and with modern instruments. Obviously, we’ve been using Musica Angelica for the past few years for the Baroque, but what I am excited about was approaching it through the prism of what we’ve learned over the past two decades about performance practice.
LAO: So we won’t be subjected to largo tempi in every movement?
GG: No, I don’t think I could bring myself to replicate that aspect! I remember playing a piano rehearsal for a performance of the B-Minor Mass – I think it was for the Carmel Bach Festival – where the opening fugue was in eight to a bar and thinking, OK, it’ll take half an hour just to get to the end of the first movement.
In lengthier works, there is always a bit of anxiety about getting through a three-hour work in a two and one-half hour rehearsal.
LAO: Speaking of bringing back works from the past twelve years, I hope that you would consider the Tan Dun Water Passion.
GG: You know, that’s funny. Of all of the new pieces that we’ve performed during my time, we still hear the most from audience members about the Water Passion. All I can say is, stay tuned!
LAO: I cannot remember her name, but there was a woman from Cuba who lives in New York, who …
GG: Oh! Tania León!
LAO: Her music was exceptionally kaleidoscopic in texture.
GG: Yes, that’s another piece I’d like to bring back. She is really gifted.
LAO: Maybe a tough question to answer: were any of the new compositions a disappointment?
GG: Sure. Without naming names, it’s the risk that you take particularly with commissions. You select the composer in whom you have the most faith, to write something beautiful and lasting. But I tend philosophically to give composers pretty free rein, really, to pursue and follow their own imagination. And I feel over all, we’ve been very fortunate. But sometimes the piece doesn’t really pan out the way you’d hoped. 
I feel incredibly fortunate that we have and we’ve developed an audience that is really game for adventure, and even if there is music on the program that is unfamiliar, they’ll still come and give it an open hearing.
LAO: I’ve always considered Britten’s War Requiem to be the finest composition of the 20thcentury with Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius giving it close competition. One of the Chorale members wrote recently that the piece was getting a little long in the tooth for him.
GG: Well, the Master Chorale has sung it 18 times!
LAO: Mixing the old repertoire with the new is a good way to prepare a meal with different flavors for the audience.
GG: I agree absolutely. Not only in terms of developing the audience but also for all of us on stage. I think it’s important. I can’t imagine narrowing or focusing on one era or one genre or style.
LAO: What you have done on occasion is to focus on one culture or a city. The biggest surprise to me was the Korean event, which was totally different from what I was expecting to hear!
GG: Good! Good!
LAO: You’ve done London, you’ve done France …
GG: Yes, that was more of a travelogue.
LAO: Are you going to pick that concept up and do, say, Budapest?
GG: Yes, I like that model to give the program some focus, and also it allows us to explore some music that may otherwise be difficult to find the right place in a program. That was true of the Korean program. The other aspect of that particular concert that was important for us, it provided us with a wonderful opportunity to reach out to the Korean community, which in terms of classical music is very, very active. It’s a natural bridge for us to create, and since we have some very gifted singers in the Chorale and the tradition of gifted Korean singers in the Chorale.
This all points up how much Los Angeles is made up of close-knit communities. I think that frankly, choral music, because it is in all these cultures that have a tradition of groups singing. We have this very fertile ground for us to build bridges that has to be a part of our mission.
LAO: How do you feel about American culture? Obviously, that would include jazz, Spirituals and other bedrock American cultures, cowboy music …
GG: … which will be represented in the Roger Wagner portion …
LAO: Alice Parker arrangements?
GG: Exactly!
LAO: And of course you can unleash Shawn Kirchner, who is a wonderful arranger and composer.
GG: Sure, absolutely. I can’t agree more.
When you talk about American music, I do very much enjoy exploring the roots music, as you mentioned, Spirituals, the shape note tradition we’ve had a lot of fun with, and the Appalachian tradition for which Shawn has such a great feel. And the main thing about those traditions is that we treat the music with integrity and respect.
LAO: Out of the past twelve years, what piece lies closest to your heart?
GG: Boy … great question. It’s like choosing your favorite child. It’s such a wide-ranging collection of pieces and concerts that come to mind.
LAO: Let me sharpen the question. I know what it is to feel ecstasy when you’re conducting. What piece particularly sends you into that realm?
GG: I would have to say the Brahms Requiem, the Verdi Requiem, the Tan Dun Water Passion … you know, when you have those moments, there’s no way to put it other than out of body, out of all natural sensibility experiences. I have to say I’ve had a relatively fair number of these, but for me, it happens the most often in these major works where the time scale is such that you’re living in the moment over such a sustained period of time in the major works that I mentioned that there comes a point where you shed your own sense of self in a way, and especially happens when you have an ensemble that you can trust so deeply and that everybody will have that shared experience.
When I was in high school, there was a collection of pieces over the course of those four years that I had score to that I would carry around from class to class and on breaks I’d go to the music room and find a piano and play through, and the Brahms Requiem specifically,             often times at night after I finished my homework I would put on my recording of the Erich Leinsdorf and I wore out the groove on that. It’s one of those pieces that I’ve lived with for so many years at this point and I’ve had the opportunity to perform it previously with the Chorale, so it’s a piece that has such long-term connection and where you have first-hand experience with it so you’re not having to think about this technical aspect of it and that creates the perfect situation for such an experience.
LAO: What piece performed over the years has elicited the greatest “shout back” from the audience?
GG: I have to say that the (Duke) Ellington Sacred Concert. I will really never forget the first time we performed those in the first season at Disney Hall, and the combination for all of us covering this repertoire that maybe we knew by name but I certainly didn’t know any of that music previously, so in discovering the pure jubilation of that music, being in the Hall it was the first time that I truly appreciated how informal Disney Hall could feel compared with the proscenium of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. That was the first time that I truly felt that the performers and audience all could truly be completely interconnected, and so when we got that audience “shout out” not only at the end of the concert, but after every movement – it was a truly incredible experience. 

 LAO: Let’s talk about the coming season. It’s special for the Chorale, being the 50th season, and your 13th as music director. How long has this special year been in the planning stages?
GG: I would say a good three years. Our event horizon for season planning has grown over the course of these 12 years. For instance, here we are in August, and we’ve got the 2014-2015 season pretty much set, maybe with a little wiggle room, but it’s pretty much there. That’s been set for 2-3 months. So we tend to be about a year and a half out where things really get put into place.
It was a longer horizon for this coming season, because obviously with it’s being the 50thseason of the group there were a lot of different aspects of the music that we wanted to make sure to highlight and be thinking about in advance. I think that any big anniversary like this presents an ensemble with an opportunity to define and redefine themselves for the public and for the audience. So we were very aware, going into this season, of how this could be both a retrospective and a way to point forward to the future.
LAO: When you prepare a piece requiring soloists to be drawn from the Chorale, what is that process like?
GG: Well, of course every year we have audition, and basically all of the Chorale members have to audition at least every other year and many of them choose to sing for me each year and particularly the ones that are interested in solo work. I’ll hear them on a fairly regular basis, and I have to say that I feel like it’s one of the shifts that happened over the course of my time with the Chorale, frankly is that the level of solo vocalism overall through the group has risen. There have always been some tremendous soloists all the way back to the prehistory of the Chorale – Marilyn Horne famously and Marni Nixon with Roger – so I don’t want to be dismissive of that long tradition, but I do think now that the number of singers that we can feature in solos and give solo opportunities to has increased over these years. I love that! It creates a virtuous circle that we are able to provide singers with an opportunity to rise to the occasion, which lifts the whole group, and it also is a great advertisement for potential singers coming in that if you join the Master Chorale, it’s not just doing ensemble singing, but you will have opportunities to solo sing with them or solos with the Philharmonic, for that matter.
LAO: When you have a solo opportunity, is there a system, if any, when choosing a soloist?
GG: At this point, there are 82 singers who are under an AGMA (union) contract, and then there are anywhere from 35 to 45 singers that are still members of the Chorale but technically they’re referred to as “supplemental” and they’re paid a stipend rather than the full union contractual fee. So when I’m choosing smaller ensembles or soloists, I’m drawing from that roster of 82 singers. But I have to say, more and more we use the supplemental singers like the farm team, and if you look at the singers who become full roster members, most of them were supplemental singers that sang with the group for a period of time. For me, it’s a win-win situation. I get to bring in a new singer, see how they function overall in the group, because you only tell so much from an audition. And then when we have openings in the roster, I’m able to offer a position to somebody who’s become a member of the ensemble and I know them, the other singers know them. Not only is it good for the group in the short term, but as a long term strategy for keeping the ethos of the group strong, it works out very, very well.
LAO: In any group, there are bound to be ego problems when choosing soloists from time to time. Do you have to deal with that issue?
GG: I do think that the group as a whole, the singers are tremendously supportive. They’re colleagues, teammates. It takes a tremendous amount of trust to build an ensemble like that. I think that for members of the Chorale, they take particular pleasure in having soloists coming from the group rather than hiring from outside.
LAO: Roger Wagner used to say you build a choir from the bottom up, starting with the basses. You pretty much keep the numbers in each section equal.
GG: Yes, when we’ve done Rachmaninoff, for instance, we brought in extra basses. Oftentimes what happens is we’ll put out a full call, like for the Rachmaninoff, and of the 115 singers, 105 are available. So that opens up ten positions where I can go out and look to see who can sing that low B-flat (in the All-Night Vigil’s Ave Maria).
LAO: Are you enjoying working with Los Angeles Opera? You even get to conduct once in awhile!
GG: I love working in opera. I love having the yin-yang experience of being in a concert world where everything is very controlled, and particularly as conductor, you very much have complete control of what happens, and then in opera, where anything can happen, and will … I know James Conlon talks about this a lot, having one foot in both worlds … there’s nothing like that excitement and the spontaneity of opera performance, and there are so many more variables than in a concert performance, and in opera, everything is bigger than life.
I’ve enjoyed the fact that my own conducting assignments have been in pieces like La Traviata and Butterfly, and now Carmen coming up, the old war horses.
LAO: And you conduct for the Philharmonic, too.
GG:  Yes, with the Philip Glass. For me, right now being in LA, I can’t imagine a better situation artistically or personally. I do feel, having grown up in LA, it’s a very good time now, and we should savor it. Nothing can be taken for granted. In the last few years, everything has come together for the city.
You know, I really credit Esa-Pekka Salonen above all for creating the shift that happened. He came to the Philharmonic at a difficult time similar to the Curry years at the Master Chorale, and there was a period of drift for two or three seasons after Previn before Esa-Pekka could assume the mantle, and it was a really difficult time. The morale of the orchestra was not good, and the sense of identity in LA was not good overall. Then Esa-Pekka came, and it wasn’t easy for him those first two years, but not only did he transform the orchestra but more importantly, he transformed the greater LA audience, and he made it possible to do the kind of programming that we do with LA Opera to come into its own. And then Walt Disney Concert Hall opened and we felt the unbridled jealousy from New York, which I love!
LAO: I note that the Master Chorale will be performing a work by Esa-Pekka Salonen in the June 2014 concert. Tell us about that.
GG: The singers came together on their own and said to management, we want to underwrite a commission of a major composer to write something for the Chorale for the 50thanniversary, and as they were talking, Esa-Pekka’s name kept coming up. We approach him, and he was thrilled to accept.
LAO: Have you ever had a commission arrive in the mail, ink still wet, barely in time for the performance?
GG: I’m trying to think of a commission that didn’t arrive at the last moment! It’s an occupational hazard.
LAO: So you just hope that it arrives prior to the Monday night rehearsal and a bit of time to look the score over.
GG: The most difficult thing structurally concerning commissioning a brand new piece is budgeting rehearsal time and you simply have to gather as much information as possible in order to make an educated guess about how much time it would take. I also feel fortunate that I’m a pretty quick study and of course, the group is very quick as well.
LAO: I didn’t like Nico Muhly’s Bright Mass the first time I heard it, but did the second time around.
GG: I think we did it a lot better the second time! I’m not ashamed to say it. Sometimes the first performance is a bit ‘seat of the pants’ or not even that, but whether it’s a new piece or not, after the performance you learn what’s really inside the piece. I think Bright Mass is a pretty good example of that, where I felt and I knew much more about the piece after that first performance and so, it’s always a luxury to come back and revisit, take what you’ve learned and then apply it.
Speaking of the upcoming season, I am very happy with the number of concerts this year that we’re able to repeat at Disney Hall. Anytime you have an opportunity to do a program more than once, it always strengthens and deepens, not only that specific program, but the overall sense of cohesion and ensemble long term that benefits from those repeat performances. There’s just no substitute for it.
LAO: Have you noticed a “sizzle” to the Walt Disney Concert Hall?
GG: I’ve experienced it. I’ve also heard that with the Philharmonic. Also, it would be nice to have maybe an extra second of reverb in the Hall when we do Renaissance or Arvo Pärt or music written for a cathedral. And we’ve refined our recording techniques to catch the sonic bloom of the Hall.
LAO: We thank you for taking precious time to answer a few questions and wish you and the Master Chorale a joyous and remarkable Season No. 50! Let the rehearsals begin!

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