By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News/
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/San Bernardino Sun
Los Master Chorale; Grant Gershon, conductor
Beethoven: Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage; Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem
Sun., Oct. 14, 2007 • Walt Disney Concert Hall
Like Esa-Pekka Salonen at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Grant Gershon has spent his six years at the helm of the Los Angeles Master Chorale radically enlarging the ensemble's repertoire with 20th and 21st century works.
However, while that philosophy has earned the 46-year-old conductor and his ensemble critical praise, chorales are also judged on how they perform major repertoire touchstones. Last night at Walt Disney Concert Hall the Master Chorale opened its 44th the season with one of those seminal works: Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requiem and, to no one's great surprise, Gershon, the Chorale, two soloists and orchestra delivered a superlative performance.
Unlike most Requiems, which are based on Roman Catholic liturgy, Brahms' German Requiem is Lutheran in its origins. Rather than focusing on the terrors of death (no Dies Irae here), Brahms used scriptural texts that emphasize consolation and hope.
Stylistically, the work forms an arch. The first and seventh movements bear many similarities, the second and sixth feature massive choral fugues, the third and fifth are dominated by solos, and one of the most familiar choral pieces, How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place, is the apex of the arch.
Last night, Gershon took full advantage of Disney Hall by employing its massive pipe organ to judiciously augment the orchestra. The instrument's 32-foot wooden pipes rumbled in support of the bass notes and the entire instrument added weight and splendor to many of the climaxes, especially the end of the third and sixth movements.
Gershon's conducting was taut in the soft, somber sections and he moved things forward briskly in the massive choral fugues. At the end, he received that rarest of honors. Despite the fact that nearly all of the 2,000 people in attendance know this piece well (many have sung it), the audience remained silent for eight seconds before bursting into, even by Los Angeles standards, an apoplectic standing ovation.
The reaction was right on. The chorale was superb, with supple softs and powerful but not strident, louds. A special nod goes to the tenor section, which was mellifluous throughout the evening. Soprano Elissa Johnston (who also happens to be Gershon's wife) and baritone Stephen Powell handled their solo duties with style and passion.
Leave it to Gershon to add something unusual to the evening, in this case, a taste of rare Beethoven to open the program, which was played without an intermission. This was a seven-minute setting of two poems by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe entitled Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. The Chorale's work was again excellent, particularly at the soft end, but the piece paled in comparison to the Requiem.
(c) Copyright 2007, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.