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March 10, 2008

Master Chorale deftly balances Bach's Mass

Los Angeles Times (CA):

With a performance of Bach's B-minor Mass, the ever-adventurous Grant Gershon and the Los Angeles Master Chorale strode bravely through the minefield of historically informed Baroque performance practice Sunday at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Things used to be so simple. A conductor would pick up a copy of the score, assemble his or her forces and have a go. But at least since the '70s, the style police have been dictating terms. Is the choir too large? Too small? Is the phrasing clipped and short (hurrah) or long and songful (boo). Is the texture light (terrific) or heavy (so yesterday)?

Gershon selected from the menu of approved options and introduced a few ideas of his own. If the results were less monumental than light-textured and dance-like, they were also intimate, well-balanced and varied.

Gershon used a chorus of about 40 singers, a number Bach probably could only envy but perhaps half or maybe a third of what used to be the standard in the pre-correct performance days.

He dispersed the singers in an untypical way: sopranos flanking the tenors and basses with a sprinkling of altos at both sides and across the front of the men. This arrangement allowed him to keep the lines of the frequently divided sopranos clear and also to ensure a fine blend of choral sound.

The conductor favored short phrasings, such as dividing the opening word, "Kyrie," into three distinct, almost hiccuping syllables. What kept the approach from becoming unsettling and monotonous was his adroit use of dynamics and buttery attacks, as well as his counterpoising such phrases with longer-flowing lines.

While the orchestra played with minimal vibrato, the quartet of vocal soloists seemed to be using the technique in varying degrees as an expressive device. Mezzo-soprano Paula Rasmussen, for instance, would start on a straight tone, then employ so much vibrato that one wondered if she were embellishing the line with a trill. But soprano Mary Wilson often matched her in this regard in their duets.

In the imposing "Quoniam," baritone Jesse Blumberg seemed more like the obbligato instrument to James Thatcher's horn than the other way around. But Blumberg sounded more powerful in his later solo. James Taylor was a honey-toned tenor. The most impressive sections were the heavenly "Sanctus," the "Gratias" and the latter's reprise as the final "Dona Nobis Pacem."

At least one listener would have appreciated more power and majesty, but with clarity of line, texture and text, this version provided compensatory rewards.

Posted by acapnews at March 10, 2008 9:37 PM

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