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S & H International Concert Review

The New Broadway, Soloists, Ricky Ian Gordon, Piano, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon, Music Director and Conductor, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, June 13, 2004 (BH)


Randy Bills
Andrew Brown
Jason Robert Brown
Aaron Cain
Brian d’Arcy James
Tonnocus McClain
Megan Mullally
Kevin St. Clair


Unfortunately this concert falls into the "high hopes dashed" category. The Los Angeles Master Chorale (formerly the Roger Wagner Chorale) is one of the country’s finest choral ensembles, and my listening companion had just heard them a few days earlier in an apparently stunning performance of Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum, which would indeed be a superb choice to take full advantage of the Disney Hall acoustic. Tonight’s program was somewhat lighter, designed to showcase works of Stephen Sondheim next to that of younger Broadway writers who have been influenced by him – an enticing concept, with a well-chosen slate of examples by Adam Guettel, Jason Robert Brown, and Ricky Ian Gordon. The latter two composers were present, and also played piano during the evening. And then of course, there’s the hall itself – justifiably lauded and also ultra-friendly to the sound of a good chorus. Last October, when the Chorale appeared in sensational performances of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, I thought, this is what musical bliss is all about.

The concert opened most promisingly, with the Overture from Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. One of the men in the back row stood up to begin the scale practice that cleverly opens the piece, and as each chorus member joined in, he or she rose up in turn, until the final chord was reached and the entire ensemble was standing, in full voice – kudos for excellent staging.

Megan Mullaley, star of television’s Will & Grace, showed her acute comic timing in You Must Meet My Wife from A Little Night Music, playfully jousting with Brian d’Arcy James, also in robust form. Some may be surprised to learn that she is quite the singer, with a clear, pleasantly nasal voice – perhaps one part Maureen McGovern, one part Bernadette Peters – and excellent phrasing and general musical instincts. She was especially moving in Ricky Ian Gordon’s Souvenir, with text by Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Adam Guettel’s Awaiting You from Myths and Hymns. Guettel’s unusual Floyd Collins is a melancholy but strangely uplifting work, based on a true story of a Kentucky farmer in 1925, who stumbles into a cavern, becomes the focus of an intense media blowup, and then dies while trapped there – not your usual subject matter for a genre steeped in sunlight and good cheer. Its final song, "How Glory Goes," has been a showpiece for Audra McDonald, but Mr. James gave it his own equally heartfelt spin.

Mr. Gershon is a wonderful conductor: alert, sensitive, and with a good stick technique – not to mention excited by the music he presents (a good thing) and eager to help the audience understand and appreciate as much of it as possible (also a good thing). But he should not do spoken commentary, at least at this point. Most of these numbers simply do not need any context – that’s what program notes are for. Instead we got halting phrases punctuated by "um’s" and "uh’s" that made me want to scream, "Please, sir! If you will only get some tips on public speaking you’ll be just fine, but meanwhile, perhaps consider engaging a celebrity or someone else – anyone – to help out in these matters!" This was positively painful, and some of the comments seemed almost as long as the songs that followed.

But now we come to how all of this was more-or-less sabotaged by using amplification, which apparently does not flourish well in Disney Hall. Aside from another problem: balance – the orchestra often drowned out the vocalists – most of the songs’ words, especially in faster numbers or those using three or four singers, were blurred and smudged by the electronics. Yes, pop singers are used to performing with microphones, but I doubt that any miking would be necessary in the live space of Disney. The hall is an acoustic marvel, but it is also a somewhat delicate instrument that does not seem to respond well to ultra-loud sounds bouncing brassily around inside it from electronic speakers. Mr. Gehry has not designed the space to be another Madison Square Garden; rather, it is a space that cooperates with acoustic instruments and voices, and in an extraordinary way. You know something is wrong when a large group of unamplified individuals – the choir – sounds better than single performers who are amplified. Mr. Gordon’s interesting-sounding Balbec by the Sea sadly emerged as a complete mess, lyrically speaking. Those with whom I spoke after got the words "by the sea" but little more than that. I understood even less of the text in the (again) well-chosen and moving Funeral Scene from Mr. Brown’s Parade. This dark vehicle is another in Sondheim’s tradition of employing the Broadway stage for sober material: the show is about the aftermath of a lynching – and probably a good subject to make sure all the words come across properly. The most interesting part of this number was the writing for the chorus, in traditional American sacred harp style, sometimes referred to as shape-note singing. Its simple, but ear-catching mode is designed to be performable by amateurs, with an immediate, homespun appeal. Sadly, the abundant lyrics were swept aside.

The program closed with the finale from Sweeney Todd, with Brian d’Arcy James as a stern but mellifluous Sweeney, and as the lights came up I couldn’t help but think, this evening is not going to turn anyone into a classical music lover, a Broadway lover, or perhaps even a music lover. A shame for a distinguished group such as this one, and even more so since one look at the Chorale’s 2004-2005 season shows further imaginative programming on the horizon. It is dispiriting to hear a great ensemble sabotaged by so many miscalculations, ironically in a venue that can now be considered one of the finest in the world.

Bruce Hodges

Los Angeles Master Chorale


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