The Star

Tears of grief and joy mix freely at Koerner Hall choral concert

, Feb 2, 2020

Saturday’s was an evening of tears in Koerner Hall. The music was the disembodied sound of tears of lament. For those of us in the audience, tears of joy were in order.

To blame for this outpouring was the Los Angeles Master Chorale under its artistic director, Grant Gershon. The 21 professional voices onstage presented a masterpiece of Renaissance polyphony, the “Lagrime di San Pietro” (Tears of St. Peter). It is the last completed work (in 1594) by Flemish composer Orlando di Lasso.

“Lagrime” is a set of 20 sacred madrigals (written to be sung at home by pious people of ease during the Counter Reformation) and a motet. They revolve around the remorse and shame of Peter after he denies knowing Jesus Christ before his crucifixion. The final motet is Jesus’ anguished rebuke of Peter from the cross.

These unhappy meditations on shame are not drawn from scripture. They are the imaginative work of an Italian poet, Luigi Transillo, who wanted to underline the pathos of the human condition.

Lasso obliged musically with elaborate, highly evocative settings of each poem for seven voices, with three singers to each part. The pattern of sevens and threes permeates the “Lagrime” in order to echo the Judeo-Christian significance of those numbers.

Renowned American opera director Peter Sellars choreographed the members of the Master Chorale to further evoke the depth of emotion found in the music.

The result was nothing short of remarkable. This was easily one of the great events of this season in Toronto. Lucky were those present, or who get to witness the repeat performance on Sunday afternoon.

The music itself is a showcase of Renaissance polyphony at its richest. Gershon moulded the voices of the Master Chorale into undulating sculptures of sound. The vocal balance was flawless and the acoustics at Koerner Hall made the sound bloom alluringly.

The singing alone would have been enough to make it a memorable concert, but to have it rendered so well by the singers while in motion, or lying on the floor, prostrated in shame, is astounding. The whole 90-minute cycle was also sung by heart — and barefoot.

Anyone who thinks the Romantics had the last word on wringing emotion out of text should check out the art of the madrigal. The evocations in Lasso’s writing are as vivid as red spray paint on the wall of a new condo building.

So why add movement to underscore what’s already so obvious? This is Sellars’ master stroke.

We are so used to hearing sacred music in concert that the full impact of the texts, so often in Latin, is lost. We admire the forms and contours, the harmonies and the art of the choral singing. But there originally was a spiritual purpose behind all of this effort.

By staging “Lagrime,” Sellars brought the text home in a visceral way. It’s something that just singing it can no longer accomplish in the 21st century.

In the end, whether or not you care for Jesus Christ and St. Peter and the cross or not, I don’t think it was possible for many people to leave the concert hall feeling like the Earth hadn’t shifted under their feet in some small but significant way.

That is the power of art at its most evocative.

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