By Truman C. Wang
Photo credit: Jamie Pham
For its second concert of the season, the Los Angeles Master Chorale gave top billing to Bach’s Magnificat: Giant block letters in the concert program, dwarfing the second piece – a new work by Reena Esmail. Therein lies the conundrum in classical music. Most concert- and opera-goers do not like new music or, more specifically, new music written by academically-trained composers for whom tonality and melody are held in equal disdain. Having heard my share of new music in the last few seasons, I cannot place the blame squarely on the audiences. Contemporary composers, as Bernstein lamented in one of his last interviews, were embarrassed to write melodies; further, he rightly stated the goal of the arts was not to solve world conflicts – the New York Philharmonic’s 2008 visit to North Korea, Isaac Stern’s 1979 visit to Beijing, etc. all yielded no immediate political benefits – but rather to react to world events and offer solace and perhaps glimmers of hope.
For Sunday’s concert, at least, I am happy to report the audience loved the new work better than the Bach, and I can place the blame squarely on the choice of soloists for the Magnificat, BWV 243. The piece is short but filled with a skillful mixture of Bach’s Lutheran Passion music (“Omnes generations” chorus) and Catholic mass – all of astonishing power and beauty. That power and beauty were much evident in the fine choral singing, as well as the orchestral playing and various obbligato instrument groupings, but were sorely lacking in the solo singing, so much so that the high operatic emotions in arias such as “Et exultavit” and “Esurientes implevit” completely went for naught. The tones from the soloists were wan and colorless, unable to fill the hall, even when accompanied by the bare-bone basso continuo in “Quia fecit mihi magna”. The tempos dragged for the most part, failing to uplift the spirits.
After the intermission, the story was that of redemption, in the form of This Love Between Us: Prayers for Unity by Indian-American composer Reena Esmail (b.1983) – a worthy companion to the Bach in its power of conception and beauty of execution. Much of the work’s power lies in the simplicity of its seven sections – Buddhism, Sikhism, Christianity, Zoroastriasnism, Hinduism, Jainism, Islam – that collectively cry out for unity and peace. Ms. Esmail’s musical style is unabashedly melodic, a beautifully seamless fusion of Western and Eastern (Indian) classical traditions, featuring Baroque trumpets in the Christianity section and the sitar and tabla in others. The vocal soloists, all excellent, intoned melisma on ancient texts that alternated between ecstasy and contemplation. The choral singing was graceful and ingratiatingly spirited throughout. At times, it seemed Music Director Grant Gershon presided over the mixed orchestra not as a conductor, but as a Zen master of sounds, which were intoxicatingly beautiful.
In the wake of recent tragic events in Los Angeles – the shootings, the fires – we all need to be reminded of our commonality and inner capacity for love and peace. Great art can serve as that reminder, and offer a glimmer of hope that, to paraphrase Anne Frank, most people are truly good at heart.
Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily. He studied Integrative Biology and Music at U.C. Berkeley.