Monday, January 27, 2014

A Major B Minor

Yesterday I took my eleven year old to see and hear Bach's Mass in B-minor at the Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. The performance was by the L.A. Master Chorale and its orchestra. I must say that I have come to love the Master Chorale, and I feel that its conductor, Grant Gershon, ought to be named a municipal treasure by the city so that he can never leave. His pre-concert talks are always entertaining and informative, his demeanor on stage, his love of the music and his ideas seem never to flag or fail. I have attended the Chorale's performances of the Verdi Requiem (one of my favorite pieces and, I think one of the most dramatic works of art ever produced), as well as their Carmina Burana (twice), which is simply the best rendition of this musical bacchanal I have ever heard. You rarely hear an audience laugh out loud at a classical concert, and afterwards I said to my son, "Now tell me that's not the most fun you've ever had in a concert hall". And so when I learned that they were doing the B-minor Mass, I bought tickets early.

It was well that I did; the performance sold out. Though I must say that I, and others, knowing this, were surprised at the number of empty seats. The answer came midway through the first half of the performance, when Mr. Gershon had to stop to allow a small army of latecomers to enter. "Typical L.A. audience," I whispered to my son. But the conductor was gracious, even genial about it, and no real harm was done.

Now I should say that I consider the B-minor Mass to be the most beautiful creation of Western Civilization. No, I do not blanch at such a statement, for I know I am not alone. Many years ago, I watched a debate between William F. Buckley and the philosopher, Mortimer Adler, on the question of whether Heaven will be more beautiful than the B-minor Mass. I don't recall what they decided, but for my own part, the answer is No, since the Mass exists and Heaven does not. Thus it is rather like asking whether a tree is more beautiful than the idea of a tree. Perhaps Plato would argue that the idea is superior, but certainly not on a hot summer day when shade is required, or when a storm whisks the branches and leaves. I described this debate to my son on the drive down to the Disney Center, and then I said to him: "You are about to experience the most beautiful thing you will ever experience; so enjoy it, because the rest of your life will be a disappointment." Of course, being my son, he made a face at the suggestion.

The B-minor Mass is a miracle of creation. It has so many colors, so many textures, such a wealth of meaning and emotion and insight, and all of it is so beautiful that, to my mind at least, it transcends any other work, even the greatest of Beethoven, Tolstoy and Shakespeare. For sheer drama, nuance, variety and spiritual and aesthetic power, it is unmatched, and rivaled only, perhaps, by Lear. The Master Chorale's performance lasted over two hours (with an unexpected intermission), and yet as we entered each section in the work, it was as if it, and the world, were being created anew. There is so much variety in the Mass, and all of it so perfectly balanced and profoundly executed (and in this case, wonderfully performed) that one's attention never falters; indeed, it grows and becomes more awestruck with each unfolding gesture of the work.

That said, I did take exception to some of Mr. Gershon's choices of phrasing in the instruments and voices, in which he consistently detached notes rather than treating them legato, but that was purely a matter of personal taste, and I am content to defer to his knowledge and judgment. On the other hand, I very much enjoyed and admired his decision to use members of the Chorale to sing the solos and duets, rather than relying on invited soloists. They did so very well, and while the process of moving them from the risers to a position downstage was a bit distracting, the effect was to make the piece seem more at one with the orchestra and chorus. This was Mr. Gershon's and the Chorale's B-minor Mass; they took possession of it and they did so with marvelous virtuosity, originality, devotion and elan, as they have everything I have seen them perform.

I have said 'seen' several times since one of the joys of their programs is watching Mr. Gershon, the singers and the orchestra. He transmits his personality to the group, a personality that is suffused with genuine love and respect for the music, with brilliantly original ideas and attention to detail, and with humor when possible and solemnity when called for. This is a truly marvelous ensemble, and the orchestra that accompanies it is of a very high quality. Though I have listened to the Mass many times, this was the first time I had seen it performed, and one of the most interesting things to me was to watch how beautifully Bach paired instrumental soloists with vocal soloists, a fact which Mr. Gershon emphasized by having the singers move down into the body of the orchestra, and having the instrumentalists stand as they performed together with them. This was music that was wonderful to watch. Bach's blending of instrumental and human voices is unerring, filled with variety, and moving both for its delicacy and drama. "That is genius," I whispered to my son, and this time, he nodded.