With 'Requiem,' L.A. Master Chorale Give Voice to Mozart

Grant Gershon will lead the 100-voice Los Angeles Master Chorale through Mozart’s epic “Requiem” on Saturday-Sunday, Sept. 22-23, at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

DTLA -In the waning months of 1791, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart lay on his deathbed in Vienna, feverishly trying to complete what would be his final work. Though he died before penning the last notes of “Requiem,” it was later finished by his contemporaries.

[Get DTLA stories in our daily email newsletter.]

Considered one of the pillars of choral music, the drama surrounding the author only elevates the work.

“There is this quality that you are feeling knowing that he has one foot on the other side,” Los Angeles Master Chorale Artistic Director Grant Gershon said. “It’s really powerful and very moving.”

The 100-voice LAMC will attempt to deliver that same drama and energy when it opens its 2018/2019 season with the work this weekend. Performances at Walt Disney Concert Hall take place Saturday, Sept. 22, at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m.

Gershon, who joined the Master Chorale in 2001, has a special affinity for “Requiem.” It was the first major work that he performed in choir the summer after his freshman year at Alhambra High School.

“It changed my life,” Gershon said. “This piece for me, and that experience, is the reason that I am in music.”

The Master Chorale performed portions of the piece alongside the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in August 2017, but hasn’t tackled “Requiem” as a company since 2009.

It is also a highlight for Amy Fogerson, an alto who has sung with the LAMC for 31 years. She said she remembers singing portions of “Requiem” in college.

The Punk Rock, All-Women, Axe-Wielding Musical

“It’s one of those pieces that is well-known for a reason,” Fogerson said. “It’s beautifully constructed. It lends to a certain pathos, knowing that he was writing something that could be possibly played at his own funeral.”

The work is a 14-section requiem mass “anonymously” commissioned by Count Franz von Walsegg. An amateur composer himself, Walsegg supposedly wanted a requiem mass that he could pass off as his own to be played at his wife’s funeral. Following Mozart’s death, multiple composers were hired by his widow to help complete the work. Franz Xaver Süssmayr finished the mass in 1792.

The work calls for four vocal soloists in conjunction with the choir. This weekend the roles will be handled by soprano Liv Redpath, mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, tenor David Portillo and baritone Rod Gilfry.

“All four of these singers are great Mozart singers. That in and of itself is a real specialty,” Gershon said.

Past and Present 

The theme of the upcoming season involves pairing contemporary works with choral masterpieces from the likes of Mozart, Johann Sebastian Bach, Giuseppe Verdi and George Handel. Gershon said this tactic exposes fans of chorale warhorses to contemporary compositions.

“It’s emphasizing that the choral music that we love is very alive and vibrant and that Los Angeles is really leading the way forward,” Gershon said. “The composers who call L.A. home are writing some of the most popular and transformative music.”

Exuberant 'Ain't Too Proud' Tells the Story of The Temptations

That is born out in the opening piece, Los Angeles-based composer Shawn Kirchner’s nearly 45-minute “Songs of Ascent.”

Elyse Willis, a soprano who is heading into her 10th season with the Master Chorale, said there are similarities between the two pieces that were written centuries apart.

“I think that when you experience the ‘Requiem’ you’re sort of going on a journey, and you definitely feel the same way with ‘Songs of Ascent,’” Willis said.

Kirchner joined the Master Chorale as a singer the same year as Gershon, and in 2012 he was appointed the chorus’ Composer-in-Residence. The Master Chorale first performed “Songs of Ascent” in 2015.

The gravity of having his work paired with one of the most renowned pieces of classical music isn’t lost on Kirchner.

“There is this intimidation factor because we all grew up with these master composers,” Kirchner said. “It is a tall order to be paired with Mozart, for example, but at the same time, it is an interesting dialogue because we are shaped by the music.”

While “Requiem” evokes almost haunting feelings, “Songs of Ascent’ draws from themes of peace and optimism. Kirchner said his mother was a pacifist and his father was a Marine. He remembers learning to play the Marine Corps hymn shortly before heading off to church to learn of nonviolent heroes such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

“This whole piece is actually trying to show a vision that peace is even possible,” Kirchner said. “There has to be a turning point where you lay down your weapons, fists or words and move toward forgiveness.”

Kirchner takes pride in being able to write complex and engaging lines for members of the LAMC, especially the alto section, which typically is in the background in choral compositions. Fogerson credits that to the time Kirchner spent on stage singing.

“Shawn knows our sounds so well,” Fogerson said. “So when he writes for us, we know he’s writing with our sounds in mind. It’s just a wonderful symbiotic relationship.”

Gershon said that the group’s emotional commitment to the pieces is what pushes the Master Chorale into the upper echelon of choirs. The 2,200-seat Downtown venue should also amplify the experience.

“Even for people who have heard the ‘Requiem’ on a recording or in other venues, to hear this work with the Chorale at Disney Hall, the combination of the acoustics, the intimacy and the energy of the space itself, it really makes everything memorable,” he said.

So is the mix of the past and the present.

Mozart’s “Requiem” will be performed Saturday-Sunday, Sept. 22-23, at Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave. or lamasterchorale.org


© Los Angeles Downtown News 2018