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L.A. Master Chorale conductor Grant Gershon on ‘The Water Passion’

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The L.A. Master Chorale has been called “the most exciting chorus in the country” under the leadership of Grant Gershon by the L.A. Times.

Director Gershon, a native of Alhambra, is currently in his 14th season. Composer John Adams says, “Grant Gershon is one of those rarities we call ‘the complete musician.’ My respect for his musicality — for his conducting, his extraordinary musical intuition and his formidable ear — knows no bounds.”  

For the 2014-2015 season, Gershon chose three pieces about the Passion:  Richard Einhorn’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” and for the weekend after Easter, “The Water Passion After St. Matthew” by Chinese composer Tan Dun.  

“It’s quite a trio of contrasting pieces, sonically and emotionally,” Gershon observes. “They’ve been the pillars of our season this year.”

The Passion, as seen by these very different composers, in the end is a story of suffering, betrayal, injustice. At the same time it’s a story of mercy, redemption and grace. What unites them is the focus on redemption through suffering.

“That message is quite universal. It’s the music in every case that opens up the experience for the listener, enabling people of any faith or no faith to come and be moved by the story, by the emotions that are evoked, and by the beauty of the musical treatment.”

The final presentation in this series, “The Water Passion,” is perhaps the most “out-of-the-box” of the three.

“Tan Dun comes from a non-Western tradition musically. He’s also bringing his own Buddhist faith. So it’s probably the most open-ended, and also a remarkably beautiful and powerful, telling of the story,” Gershon says.

“He uses the sound and imagery of water to create a version of the Passion where redemption is seen as life-giving and life-sustaining, just as water is life-giving. He makes that palpable by using the sound of water as a musical instrument in a way that is really extraordinary.”

By all accounts, experiencing “The Water Passion” live is an overwhelming experience.

“When people arrive at Disney Hall for the concert, they’ll see on stage an enormous array of large translucent bowls of water, illuminated from beneath, and arranged in the shape of the cross. The image is phenomenally beautiful and powerful, both musically and visually. The whole piece has a very overtly dramatic and ritualistic quality. It’s a very immersive experience,” Gershon says.

“What sets the piece apart is that, unlike Einhorn and Bach, Tan Dun actually goes beyond the final suffering. Musically, he deals with the Resurrection. At the end of the piece, various singers will come down to the water bowls and start washing their hands, washing their faces, immersing their hair in the water.”

The sound world he evokes mirrors the emotional journey of the piece itself. During the final approach to Golgotha and the crucifixion itself, the sound of water is completely absent.

“It’s only during that final 10 minutes of transcendence — the Resurrection — that the audience again starts to hear the sound of water in all its different forms. The idea is that through the suffering of the Passion story, we are cleansed. Life is given anew through the water,” Gershon says.

“We try to create concert events where people are transported. That moment of silence that often happens between the time the last note falls and the applause begins is a really beautiful thing. It’s as if the audience wants to live just a little bit longer in that world that we’ve created,” he adds.  

“We feel that on stage. These phenomenally gifted musicians and artists pour their hearts and souls into the performance.”

Disney Hall is also special. The performers are not on a stage backed by a proscenium. The boundary between performers and audience members is transparent.

“So there’s a fantastic sense of community and of a shared energy and experience. It creates these indelible experiences that we as performers yearn for. The more we give, the more we receive.”

When the Master Chorale performed the piece 10 years ago, Gershon remembers, everyone on stage was overwhelmed at the end.

“It’s safe to say that performance engendered the strongest reaction from an audience of virtually anything we’ve done. Since then, people are all the time coming up to me and asking, ‘When are you going to do “The Water Passion” again?’”

Finally this season, the timing felt right, particularly to present the piece in conjunction with Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.”

“Bach makes an important point: we’re all culpable. That shared suffering and shared guilt leads to the redemption and the grace.”

Music can illuminate the deeper meaning of the story — of mercy, of the search to understand our suffering — in ways that words are simply unable to.

“To me, that’s really what we as musicians are here for. To help provide context, solace and meaning for the biggest experiences of our lives.”

 

The L.A. Master Chorale  “The Water Passion After St. Matthew,” by Tan DunWalt Disney Concert HallSaturday, April 11 , 2 p.m.Sunday, April 12, 7 p.m.

 

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