March 26, 2007

MUSIC: Los Angeles Master Chorale : Rouse / Requiem

Commissioned in 2002 by Soli Deo Gloria in honor of the 2003 Berlioz bicentennial, Christopher Rouse's Requiem has waited four years for a performance. According to Rouse, the wait was due to the piece's difficulty; whenever a music director wanted to perform the piece, their choral director recoiled in shock. Last night, the Los Angeles Master Chorale gave the world premiere of the piece.

The Requiem is 90 minutes long and requires a large ensemble. The 100 singers of the Chorale were joined by 75 members of the Los Angeles Children's Chorus, baritone soloist Sanford Sylvan, and a large orchestra (triple winds, quadruple brass, timpani and six percussionists).

As has become common in recent decades, Rouse interpolates non-liturgical texts into his requiem; he has chosen six poems which form a sort of Everyman's progress through life, and the various ways in which death presents itself. These interpolated texts are given to the baritone soloist, which the chorus sings the liturgical text. The interpolations are:
  • Seamus Heaney's "Mid-Term Break," in which a boy returns home from school for the funeral of his 4-year-old brother
  • Siegfried Sassoon's "Suicide in the Trenches," in which a soldier describes the death of a comrade
  • Michelangelo's "Ancor Che'l Cor," on the death of the poet's father
  • Ben Johnson's "On My First Sonne," on the death of a 7-year-old son
  • Milton's Sonnet 23, in which the poet imagines a ghostly visitation from his late wife
  • Michelangelo's "On Immortality," in which the poet contemplates his own death, and concludes that so long as he is loved and remembered by those he knew, he will not truly die

I should note at this point that my memory is not so sharp that I can remember all of the details of a 90-minute work without prompting; I am indebted for much of the following description to Victoria Looseleaf's fine program note, which is unfortunately not available online. The mass begins with the Heaney poem, sung without accompaniment by the soloist; the chorus enters, still unaccompanied, to sing the "Requiem aeternam," a gorgeous, harmonically complex 8-voice motet.

The first instruments enter at the "Dies irae," as the six percussionists go berserk on their battalion of unpitched instruments while the chorus shouts the text in strict rhythm, but on no particular pitch. Each group seems to want nothing more than to drown out the other. For my money, the balance was weighted a bit heavily in favor of the percussionists; it was often hard to tell that the chorus was singing at all, much less what they were saying.

The sound dies away in an instant (Rouse is fond of abrupt volume changes) and a handful of unpitched percussion instruments begin rattling rapid-fire staccato patterns -- perhaps a suggestion of the gunfire of far-off battlefields -- as the baritone sings Sassoon's poem of suicide during war.

The rest of the instruments finally enter, some 15 minutes or so into the piece, with a giant unison blare from the brass that introduces the "Tuba mirum;" there is a brief interlude of relative calm as the choral basses sing the bleak "Quid sum miser" over deep drones from the orchestral basses. The brass returns in full force for the "Rex tremendae;" Rouse gives this text a great deal of emphasis, repeating it three times over increasingly frenzied orchestral runs.

The orchestra has yet to calm down when the baritone soloist returns with the first Michelangelo text; the effect is that he has to fight them for control of the sonic landscape. This is the longest of the interpolated poems, and it finally reaches a place of great calm and sadness, which carries over into the chorus's "Quarens me;" that movement builds to a great climax, which is followed by a long silence of several seconds (I was quite surprised that the audience remained silent here).

In other pieces, Rouse has often paid tribute to the composers who inspired him by quoting them; there are no direct quotes of Berlioz in Rouse's Requiem, but the "Lacrymosa" is meant as a musical homage of sorts, like Berlioz's "Lacrymosa," it is a long, flowing piece in 9/8 meter. Rouse also honors Berlioz by using the same edited and rearranged version of the liturgical text throughout the Requiem.

From this point on, the texture begins to thin and the harmonies become less dense. The baritone returns with a heartbreaking performance of Johnson's "On My First Sonne," accompanied mostly by glockenspiel, vibraphone, and clarinet; in one of Rouse's loveliest inspirations, this poem is directly followed by the first entrance of the children's chorus, who sing the "Sanctus." Milton's sonnet is followed by the adult chorus, who sing the "Agnus Dei;" the baritone sings his only line of liturgical text at the end of this movement: "Dona eis requiem sempiternam" ("Grant them eternal rest").

The piece ends with the intermingling of three texts. The adult chorus sings the English hymn "Now the laborer's task is o'er;" the baritone sings Michelangelo's "On Immortality;" and the children's chorus interjects phrases from the German carol "Es ist ein' Ros' entsprungen." The children fade away, followed by the orchestra and the percussion -- a condensed inversion of the piece's gradual accumulation of forces -- and as the baritone fades out repeating the final words of the Michelangelo, which translate as "I'm not dead," the chorus begins a lovely series of echoing repetitions of the word "requiem," which come to a close as the baritone, unaccompanied, sings the final "Amen."

With the exception of a few moments when the balance between chorus and orchestra was a bit off, the performance was nearly flawless. The choruses sang Rouse's difficult music with great skill; intonation and enunciation were impeccable. Solo baritone Sanford Sylvan was superb, and his interpolations were intensely emotional, with the Heaney and Johnson poems being particular high points.

Ninety minutes is a lot of new music to absorb in one sitting, and it would take more hearings (which I would welcome) for me to make any sort of evaluation of the music's overall quality. There are certainly moments of greatness in it -- the "Dies irae" is thrilling; the Johnson setting is devastating; the entrance of the children's chorus is a spectacular coup de theatre -- and I was never bored by the music; the contrasts between the more apocalyptic passages and the ultimate sense of solace and acceptance are very effective. The ninety minutes flew by, and I would not have guessed that I'd been sitting for that long. I hope there will be a recording.

(Edited to add: Victoria Looseleaf's program note is online, after all.)


Anonymous said...

It might interest you to know that there actually are TWO long silences written in the medieval Dies Irae poem. Rouse's score specifies that the first silence must be exactly nine seconds long, while the second is noted at eleven seconds in length--Rouse's only direct (if quite subtle)acknowledgement of the attacks on the U.S., which occurred while he was living in NYC and composing this Requiem.

Also, readers (and grateful lovers of choral music) might want to visit the website of the commissioning organization, called the "Soli Deo Gloria" Foundation, after the words that J.S. Bach was wont to append to the manuscripts of music that he composed for the church ("to God Alone the Glory").

Keith said...

I had missed that; a bit cutesy for my taste. There was at least one pause in the performance that was ambiguous in nature; at first, it seemed to be a deliberate long pause that was notated in the score, but it went on for long enough that Gershon eventually decided to treat it as a full-fledged break and opportunity for re-tuning. I don't know if that was one of the 9-second/11-second pauses or not. Like I said, hard to remember every detail after one hearing.

Anonymous said...

The 9 & 11 pauses were a secret, known only to the performers and/or
anyone who saw the score. Rouse
apparently did not want them publicized, and never mentioned them in any of his interviews. I wondered if they would ever be discussed, and your post is the first mention of the pauses I have heard or seen outside of our rehearsals. The "cutesy" comment is probably what Rouse was attempting to avoid by not making the pauses public knowledge. The 9-second silent pause is in the baritone aria on the first Michaelangelo poem, and is noted in the score to be observed strictly by the conductor without any obvious sign of counting the time passed. The 11-second pause is at the end of the same aria, but is not silent--the winds are playing a drone throughout that pause. The pause after the Lacrymosa in our performance was put in by the conductor as a resting spot for the performers, at which the singers could scrape their larynxes off the ceiling of Walt Disney Concert Hall and the instrumentalists could re-tune, and was not one of the pauses indicated in the Rouse score.

Keith said...

There actually is a reference to the 9- and 11-second pauses in Victoria Looseleaf's program note, though I hadn't made the connection between them and 9/11.

Congratulations, by the way, on a fine performance; it must have been a thrilling experience.