Grant Ger­shon, ever vig­i­lant

Los Angeles Times - - Calendar - Richard S. Ginell cal­en­

If you ask a con­cert-goer to name his or her fa­vorite Rach­mani­noff piece, the lead­ing con­tenders likely would be the Sec­ond and Third pi­ano con­cer­tos, the Pa­ganini Rhap­sody, the Sec­ond Sym­phony, Vo­calise or maybe the Sym­phonic Dances. Rach­mani­noff him­self would have begged to dif­fer. His two fa­vorites were the choral/or­ches­tral “The Bells” and the a cap­pella choral “All-Night Vigil” — nei­ther of which has caught on in most places other than record­ings.

Yet at the Los An­ge­les Mas­ter Cho­rale, “All-Night Vigil” is solidly on the playlist. Grant Ger­shon first pro­grammed the piece in Novem­ber 2006, and to open his 10th an­niver­sary sea­son as mu­sic di­rec­tor of the Mas­ter Cho­rale on Sun­day night, he of­fered it again — and got a full house at Walt Dis­ney Con­cert Hall for his trou­ble.

Yes, full houses are in­creas­ingly be­com­ing the norm for Ger­shon and the Mas­ter Cho­rale dur­ing his term here. But it’s one thing for the pop­u­lar Mozart Re­quiem — which opened the 2009-10 sea­son — to fill the house, and an­other for this still-lit­tle-known ar­ti­fact of Rach­mani­noff’s fas­ci­na­tion with the Rus­sian Ortho­dox ser­vice to do the same. Ger­shon has built an au­di­ence that trusts him, and that trust was re­paid with an im­mac­u­lately pre­pared and sung per­for­mance of an outof-the-or­di­nary piece.

There is some con­fu­sion about the work’s ti­tle; the piece is most of­ten la­beled on CDs as “Ves­pers” — al­though “All-Night Vigil” is a more ac­cu­rate trans­la­tion of the Rus­sian ti­tle and “Ves­pers” only refers to the first six of the score’s 15 sec­tions (the last nine are “Matins”). Luck­ily for the im­pa­tient, “All-Night Vigil” never lasts all night; not count­ing pauses, Ger­shon’s rel­a­tively swift per­for­mance clocked in at about 56 min­utes.

Most would not be able to guess the com­poser of this mu­sic in a blind­fold test, for Rach­mani­noff was draw­ing upon cen­turies-old forms of chant, while in­vent­ing sec­tions of his own in this man­ner. Yet the com­poser of the volup­tuous pi­ano con­cer­tos man­ages to color some of this mu­sic with a sen­su­ous­ness that un­der­cuts the aus­tere at­mos­phere a bit. There is even a pas­sage in “The Six Psalms” in which the choral har­monies spread out into a sus­tained chord that sounds lus­ciously mod­ern.

While the Mas­ter Cho­rale’s bright, buoy­ant, Amer­i­can sound in Dis­ney Hall could not have been mis­taken for that of an edgier, bass-rich Slavic choir, Ger­shon brought other valu­able in­sights to the ta­ble. He em­pha­sized dy­namic con­trasts while al­ways main­tain­ing a con­tin­u­ous flow­ing line. With slightly clipped phras­ings, he made the re­frains in “Blessed Art Thou, O Lord” sound like Rus­sian folk songs — an ef­fect I’ve never en­coun­tered in this work.

As an en­core, Ger­shon led an­other ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal Rach­mani­noff rar­ity, the 18th sec­tion of “Liturgy of St. John Chrysos­tom.”

SUN­DAY: Grant Ger­shon con­ducts the Los An­ge­les Mas­ter Cho­rale in Rach­mani­noff’s “All-Night Vigil.”

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