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Sing Out at the Master Chorale

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Festival of Carols Concert Review

You better watch out, you better not shout, because the Los Angeles Master Chorale is in town, regaling listeners with its annual Festival of Carols. If you’re not in the Christmas spirit yet, experiencing this songfest at the Walt Disney Concert Hall may be just the ticket (literally). The festive aural cascade of seasonal song includes around 20 numbers, ranging from the solemn to the celebratory, the traditional to the pop, in a variety of languages.

The show, which has one intermission, was kicked off by an a cappella rendition of an English Wassail song. Other oldies but goodies were accompanied by Lisa Edwards on the piano and/or by John West on the organ. The ensemble of 50-ish male and female vocalists regaled aud ears with many of those standards that are beloved by believers, inescapable for atheists. They included zesty versions of Deck the Hall, Silent Night, White Christmas and Santa Claus is Coming to Town -- which was accompanied by a certain visitor who may have arrived via a reindeer-powered sled, who then slid down the Disney’s chimney. Before the Chorale belted out a rousing Hark! The Herald Angels Sing conductor Grant Gershon invited the Angelenos to sing-a-long from their seats, the words provided in the show’s program.

A Hebrew Folk Tune enhanced the repertoire, as soprano soloist Ayana Haviv sang Hiney Mah Tov. Noting that the Jewish Festival of Lights had already ended prior to the first concert, which was on Dec. 7, Gershon good-naturedly joshed that this was “the first Hanukkah carol of next year.” Soloist Caroline McKenzie movingly sung Moses Hogan’s Negro Spiritual-like Glory, Glory, Glory to the Newborn King, swaying and slapping her sides as her dulcet soprano tones lit up the concert hall and closed the first act.

Highlights of the second act included soprano saxophonist Doug Masek accompanying the Chorale during the German carol Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming, which was arranged by Shawn Kirchner, composer in residence. Gershon, who provided wise and witty patter between songs, introduced the Kenyan folk song Wana Baraka by dedicating it to that African giant we just lost, Nelson Mandela.

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During Act II organist John West returned to the stage and announced that there would be “an unscripted word” -- and never were truer words ever spoken, as the Hall’s high tech organ actually could not play. As West wrestled with what I suppose is a computerized musical instrument, I thought the organ was going to say, like HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: “I’m sorry Dave, but I can’t do that.” As the audience cooled its heels a technician was actually brought onstage and performed what I suppose was an, uh, organ transplant, and West was finally able to resume tickling the ivories.

During the grand finale I thought I was at a Dodgers’ game for a moment as the organ swelled, resounding throughout the auditorium, accompanying a rousing rendition of Joy to the World. No, rockers -- not Three Dog Night’s version with the “Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog” lyrics, but the one based on Psalm 98, composed by Isaac Watts in the 18th century with the “come let us adore thee” words. Truth be told, the Chorale’s rapturous singing so expressed what that immortal philosopher Linus van Pelt called “the true meaning of Christmas” that your atheistic reviewer actually experienced a few transcendent seconds of splendor and bliss, when for a moment all worldly woes and weariness dissolved in a dew and joy dwelleth in the heart. And that alone, dear reader, is worth the price of admission.

If you’re nice not naughty, Gershon and his musical “elves” just might perform an encore or two. Take someone you love to go see the melodic gospel according to Grant and the Chorale, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Fa-la-la-la-la, peace on Earth, goodwill to all men (and women!), ya’ll!

Ed Rampell

Festival of Carols is being performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale on Saturday, December 14, 2012, at 2:00 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 South Grand Avenue at First Street in downtown Los Angeles. On December 15 and 22 at 7:00 p.m. the Los Angeles Master Chorale performs Handel’s Messiah at the Disney. For information: (213)972-7282.

Ed Rampell