Finding the beauty of the light through choral music

FresnoApril 26, 2014 

Sometimes a piece of music just wraps you in its arms and gives a heartfelt hug. With its gorgeous melodies and richly textured harmonies, Morten Lauridsen's "Lux Aeterna" — which in five movements in Latin rhapsodizes about the beauty and all-encompassing power of light — makes you feel as if you could simply float into its ethereal score and become one with the music.

A crowd-pleaser? You bet.

I'm not exactly breaking any choral news here. The 1997 piece, which the Fresno Community Chorus Master Chorale performs today (along with the famed Fauré Requiem) in its final concert of the season featuring 155 singers and an orchestra of 30, is hugely popular in contemporary choral literature. Anna Hamre, who conducts the Fresno ensemble, has performed "Lux Aeterna" four times while at Fresno State.

Let's put it this way: If there's a major choir at the high school, college or community level out there that hasn't performed "Lux Aeterna," or another of Lauridsen's other sweet, sweeping pieces that have made him a choral household name, I'd be surprised.

Contemporary classical music has a reputation, rightly or wrongly, for being cerebral and cold. Lauridsen himself has written those kinds of intellectual and austere pieces, particularly earlier in his career. But as he got older, he became more populist. He hit a sweet spot as the composer-in-residence for the Los Angeles Master Chorale from 1994-2001, and eventually offered a sweeping counterattack against the contemporary cold-fish stereotype.

"I believe that he, better than any other living composer, has written music that resonates with singers in this country," Hamre says. "Lauridsen is the one who uses compositional techniques that create emotions the bulk of contemporary society recognizes as true. Listeners hear his music and not only reflect on the beauty of sound, but they think, 'That is just how I feel.' This piece touches the singers so deeply that they want their friends to come so they can share with them."

This sense of feeling is what I remember most about singing my first Lauridsen piece: his "Les Chansons des Roses," which I sang with the Fresno Community Chorus on a 1997 tour to France and Israel. One movement, "Dirait-on," just seemed to anchor in my consciousness. I'm sure our French was pretty dreadful sounding to the Parisians who came to our concerts, but the music itself was so blissfully serene — particularly in the towering cathedrals in which we performed — that the effect was spiritual.

You can get technical when you analyze how Lauridsen achieves what he does with his music. Just an example: One of his favorite techniques in "Lux Aeterna" is taking a major tonic triad chord in first inversion and then adding a non-harmonic tone — in this case an "added second" — to give it more texture. (Think of the notes of the chord as "do," "me" and "so" together, then adding the note "re.")

But for most people, the compositional details don't matter. They might not know why that chord sounds so ethereal when that fourth note gets blended in, just that it does.

All this talk about gorgeousness and accessibility has to be tempered with a caveat, of course. One person's outlandishly beautiful score is another's mundane exercise in mushy schmaltz.

And I'll be honest: I go through my Lauridsen "periods." I listened to the recording of "Dirait-on" almost non-stop after I first sang it. Then, for a few years, I couldn't listen to it. It was too sweet, like I'd overindulged in a decadent dessert.

Yet it's all completely subjective. One person can live an entire life listening to a certain piece of music and never once think it's too syrupy. Other people reach that point really quickly. We all have different musical tastes.

But the great draw of Lauridsen, I think, is that his music has the power to sweep you off your feet, if you're willing to let it. For me, that isn't hard at all.

"You don't have to understand the intricacies of inverted counterpoint," Hamre says. "Just let it wash over you. It's like sitting in a hot bath."

I can't think of a better way to be musically refreshed.


Fresno Community Chorus Master Chorale, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, April 27, Shaghoian Concert Hall, 2770 E. International Ave., (559) 709-6245. $21, $16 seniors and students. At 1:30 p.m., conductor Anna Hamre will give a pre-concert lecture.


The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6373, and @donaldbeearts on Twitter.

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