By Don Heckman
The glorious voices of the Los Angeles Master Chorale announced the coming arrival of Christmas in a brilliantly celebratory fashion Sunday night at Walt Disney Hall. Appropriately, the program was dedicated to the works of a pair of the Baroque era’s most gifted composers – Antonio Vivaldi and Johann Sebastian Bach.
The Chorale was spread across the rear of the Disney stage in a tuxedoed and gowned half circle. In the center, a chamber orchestra of players from the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Both were conducted with vigorous enthusiasm by the Chorale’s Music Director, Grant Gershon.
The program’s three works – Bach’s Magnificat, his Lobet den Hermm alle Heiden and Vivaldi’s Gloria – were composed in the early 1700s, within less than a decade of each other. The evening’s opening work, Lobet, a motet based on text from Psalm 117, set the scene for what was to follow – a grand display of choral magic revealing, – especially in the case of the Bach works, the irresistible appeal of lush Baroque harmonies and brilliantly interwoven counterpoint.
Vivaldi’s Gloria, one of his most often performed sacred works, nonetheless recalled the buoyant energies of the concertos for which he is best known. And the Chorale’s gorgeous vocal textures, driven by the chamber orchestra’s soaring trumpets, brought the music – lost for centuries until it was rediscovered in the 1930s — vividly to life.
The second half of the program was completely encompassed by Bach’s Magnificat. Composed for the Christmas season of 1723, the work was a spectacular affirmation of his compositional excellence as he took on a new job as Music Director for the churches of Leipzig – a position he would hold until his death in 1750.
The text of the Magnificat is based on the Gospel of Luke’s description of the visit between Mary, when she is pregnant with Jesus, and her sister Elizabeth, when she is pregnant with John the Baptist. Bach conceived the work in 12 movements divided into three segments for a choir, chamber ensemble and five soloists.
In the capable musical hands (and voices) of the Master Chorale, the results were continually gripping – even for listeners unfamiliar with the work’s German and Latin text. Full credit should be assigned the evening’s vocal soloists – sopranos Risa Larson, Harriet Fraser, mezzo soprano Nike St. Clair, tenor Brandon Hynum and baritone Steve Pierce.
But the many pleasures of this memorable performance of Christmas music also trace to the full ensemble, with Gershon’s direction finding the perfect balance between soloists, chorus, chamber orchestra and Bach’s extraordinary work. One couldn’t have asked for a more musically enchanting way to embrace the arriving holiday season.
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Photo by Lee Salem courtesy of the Los Angeles Master Chorale.