November 20, 2018
The Los Angeles Master Chorale series at Walt Disney Concert Hall has been regularly attracting full or nearly full houses, and Sunday night’s concert was no exception. Grant Gershon has built a loyal audience in his years as music — and now, artistic — director, and his flock seems willing to follow him wherever he might lead.
He’s led them pretty far afield before, and he did so again Sunday by coupling J.S. Bach’s Magnificat with the West Coast premiere of a new work styled as a mix of diverse musical cultures, This Love Between Us: Prayers for Unity, by Indian-American composer Reena Esmail. Never mind that the marketeers excluded it in their headline for the concert (“Bach’s Magnificat”). This Love Between Us was the main event, an oratorio that aims to find deep connections between the seven major religions that have taken hold on the Indian subcontinent.
Each movement is dedicated to one of these religions — Buddhism, Sikhism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Islam — with texts deriving from each of these traditions, sung both in English and in each of the original languages. Also, it’s noteworthy that Esmail was working on the piece when the returns of the 2016 election came in, and the discouraging results steeled her determination that art should be used “as a way to rehabilitate our society.”
Not only are the texts a mixed bag, so is the scoring, for Esmail tried to achieve the delicate feat of uniting a Baroque orchestra with a solo oboe d’amore (played by Leslie Reed), four vocal soloists, and full Western chorus with a team of sitar and tabla. That’s a potentially hazardous task, yet Esmail made it work with restraint and a lyrical bent.
At various times, the Eastern and Western concepts of sound deferred to each other. The Indian instruments blended into a Western harmonic scheme in the first movement (“Buddhism”) while the tabla dictated the rhythms in the third movement (“Christianity”) and set the patterns for the chorus and the strings in the sixth movement (“Jainism”). In the third movement, the trumpets were given lines that one would associate with Indian music while in the fifth movement (“Hinduism”), the sitar jumped out front with its most prominent passages in the whole work.
The first movement was the most impressive upon a first hearing, achieving a really beautiful, spine-tingling epiphany when the sitar and tabla came in for the first time. Yet I don’t think the rest of the 42-minute work quite lived up to its ecstatic beginnings; I sensed a thinning of inspiration later on, although the sixth movement found an active groove and soprano Elissa Johnston sang quite expressively in tandem with tenor Adam Faruqi in the fifth movement. Sitarist Rajib Karmakar and tabla player Robin Sukhadia played and improvised splendidly, their instruments balanced equitably with the Baroque forces behind them.
The Bach Magnificat served as a prelude to Esmail’s hybrid oratorio. Gershon, conducting from memory, gave Bach a gracefully dancing rhythmic lilt as the Master Chorale responded with its customary brightness and unanimity. The strings were not terribly concerned with historically informed performance points; they even produced at times an attractive sheen that harkened back to another, now-almost-forgotten tradition, that of Eugene Ormandy.
In a brief talk prior to Bach, Gershon quoted the Sufi mystic Rumi (“The lamps may be different, but the Light is the same.”) as a way to link Bach’s piece with that of Esmail, who uses the Rumi quote in her work’s final movement (“Islam”). Musically, it rang true on this given evening. Would that it be equally true in the outside world, alas.