A Stirring Mozart Requiem Opens LA Master Chorale New Season

By Truman C. Wang

Photo credit: Patrick Brown /LA Master Chorale

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The Los Angeles Master Chorale has just kicked off its new 2018/19 season on September 22.  But already they have been on the road in the past weeks performing the Peter Sellars-directed Lagrime di San Pietro.  After the opening concert, they will resume the Lagrime world tour, jet-setting between L.A. and cities in Australia, Mexico and Europe.  What a wonderful way to share with the world one of So Cal’s cultural treasures and Orlando di Lasso’s sublime masterpiece!

A longtime advocate of ‘new’ music from the past, I have written favorably about the inspired presentation of Di Lasso’s work by the Master Chorale in 2016.   There is a simplicity and emotional directness in a lot of these neglected old masterpieces that’s missing in much of today’s new music.

Shawn Kirchner’s Songs of Ascent was premiered by the Master Chorale in 2015 and on Saturday we heard a revised and greatly expanded version.  According to the composer, the revision was to bring out the sharper contrast between the ideas of estrangement and reconciliation (of people or religions). It’s a large-scale work for orchestra and chorus, plus 4 soloists (2 of whom were Chorale members). The 13 Psalm settings by Kirchner form a symmetry with Psalm 120 in the middle, flanked by 6 Psalms on both sides like the arms of the cross.  The music is rich, inventive and, at its inspired best, recalls the simplicity and quiet grandeur of “Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras” from Brahms’ German Requiem.   Baritone Rodney Gilfry sang with the nuance of a fine lieder singer.  Soprano Liv Redpath’s angelic tones were balm to sore ears.  Chorale members Robert Norman and Abdiel Gonzalez sang and acted the warring factions admirably and ended in a long hug of reconciliation.  Conductor Grant Gershon and his Chorale and Orchestra gave a powerful reading of this courageous work.

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Conspiracy theories abound surrounding the composition of Mozart’s Requiem K.626.  For what it’s worth, here is my own theory – In early July of 1791, Count Franz von Walsegg delivered an anonymous commission to Mozart for a Requiem for his dearly departed wife.  Promptly Mozart set it aside not out of superstitious fear, but for his insane schedule of commitments (Magic Flute, Clemenza di Tito, Clarinet Concerto, etc.) and traveling to Prague, plus changing diapers of his new baby!  It was probably stress that killed him in December that same year.  Countess Walsegg’s Requiem had effectively become his own.

Only four sections of the Requiem were wholly finished by Mozart – Introitus/Kyrie, Rex Tremendare, Confutatis, and Recordare.  Other sections were either left in vocal parts only (Offertorium and the famous 8 bars of Lacrymosa) or in rough sketches.  Süssmayr took the unfinished parts given to him by Mozart’s widow and supplied the missing orchestration and composed whole new sections (Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, Lux aeterna).  To his credit, Süssmayr did not touch any of Mozart’s notes, merely adding what’s missing and recycling previous music based on the discussions he had with Mozart.  In this concert, we heard the traditional Süssmayr completion of the Requiem in an uplifting, stirring performance by the Master Chorale.

Liv Redpath, J’Nai Bridges, David Portillo, Rodney Gilfry were the SATB soloists in their superb individual turns as well as in the Benedictus quartet, with Ms. Redpath’s radiant soprano soaring above the ensemble.  It should be noted that she would also sing in the evening’s Don Carlo at LA Opera across the street.  She must have the best agent in the business.

More than about fear of death, Mozart’s Requiem is about bringing light to the afterlife and comfort to the living.  Thanks to the excellent presentation by the LA Master Chorale, the opening-day audience all went home happy, and the fortunate ones got to go to the afterparty filled with more music by the divine Mozart.

Let the afterparty begin! (L to R): Rodney Gilfry, Grant Gershon, J’Nai Bridges, Liv Redpath, David Portillo

Let the afterparty begin! (L to R): Rodney Gilfry, Grant Gershon, J’Nai Bridges, Liv Redpath, David Portillo

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.