Despite it all, L.A. Phil's daring Mozart-Pärt experiment pays off handsomely

By Truman C. Wang
Saturday, May 21, 2016

On paper, the pairing of Mozart’s Requiem Mass and Arvo Pärt’s “Miserere” seems full of symbolic meanings, but in actual performance, they were fraught with problems and grossly overestimated the audience’s capacity to join in the religio-spiritual journey on a Friday night.  However, I give L.A. Phil credit for their valiant efforts in both works. 

The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt devoted most of his life to liturgical music and his austere, minimalist style often requires considerable stamina on the part of the listener to get into the ‘zone’ with his Eastern-influenced idea of “tintinnabulation” – single notes interspersed by Zen-like silence.  In the extraordinarily live acoustics of the Disney Concert Hall, where a few random coughs, sneezes and dropping of programs that might otherwise be insignificant in a loud orchestral work suddenly became a tsunami of cacophony that actually increased stress rather than spiritual peace.  To the music lovers who would rather go to the concert hall than the church to seek the ‘higher truth’, such hushed spiritual pursuits are rarely attainable, unless they are in Japan, where the devout musical pilgrims seem to stop breathing altogether during the performance (or at least muffle their coughs).

Back to the music at hand, despite the less-than-ideal circumstances, “Miserere” received a superb reading from the members of the L.A. Phil plus the full contingent of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Latvian Radio Choir, who imparted staggering raw power to the cascading lines of “Dies Irae” and soft heavenly tones to the ‘tintinnabuli’ passages. 

Mozart’s final work, the “Requiem” K.626, fared much better with the audience precisely because it’s louder, more emotional and, in ‘Benedictus’, divinely beautiful.  It’s written in a musical language that most people understand, regardless of their religious beliefs.  Conductor Gustavo Dudamel launched the opening ‘Introitus’ in a tempo that was slow but flowing, never ponderous – reminiscent of the classic 1971 Karl Böhm recording.  Dudamel’s oft-criticized penchant for bombast melted away into consolatory tones and heavenly glow that made each section of the mass incredibly moving, whether its weeping for God’s mercy in ‘Lacrimosa’ (the last music Mozart ever wrote), or softly praying for salvation in the midst of the fiery ‘Cunfuntatis’.   The superb Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Latvian Radio Choir outdid themselves in the Requiem, giving dramatic contrasts of raw power and whispered ecstasy in ‘Cunfutatis’, ‘Agnus Dei’, and opening a floodgate of tears in a deeply-poignant ‘Lacrimosa’.   The quartet of soloists were all outstanding in their vocal abilities and emotive power, particularly soprano Lucy Crowe who dominated the ensemble with her meltingly beautiful tones.

Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.