Death and grieving can trigger our heaviest feelings and darkest thoughts - and perhaps our greatest need for art. Music and poetry have the power turn it all around: What if, when we die, we simply become "light" - so light we can fly, so light that we shine?
The ideas of solace in light, and freedom in flight, were at the center of two pieces featured over the weekend in a set of concerts called "Lux," performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale under the direction of Grant Gershon, with guest artists violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, pianist and composer Billy Childs, the Lyris Quartet and the Billy Childs Jazz/Chamber Ensemble, as well as the LA Master Chorale Orchestra.
The concert featured two works by living Los Angeles composers who are also close friends: the world premiere of Childs' "In the Arms of the Beloved" and a performance of Morten Lauridsen's 1997 piece, "Lux Aeterna." Both were written for the Los Angeles Masters Chorale, and both deal with the complex subject of what lies beyond death.
Childs' "In the Arms of the Beloved" is a setting of the poem Gone to the Unseen by the 14th-century Persian poet Rumi, as translated by American poet Coleman Barks. Taking its name from the final line of the poem, Childs' piece envisions the poem as representing the perspective of his mother Mabel Childs, who passed away in 2001.
With the Master Chorale's 62 singers, including mezzo-soprano soloist Laura Smith Roethe, plus Childs himself at the piano, Meyers playing solo violin, a string quartet and a jazz ensemble, Childs had wide leeway to go many places musically - and he did. The music sounded at times like a symphony, at times like a music in a nightclub, at times like a choral mass, at times like a violin cadenza, at times like a jazz solo.
Yet it cohered around the central ideas of the poem, whose words were projected onto the walls on either side of the stage, making it easy to follow. The poem depicts the soul leaving the body as a bird in flight, fleeing the world and rising higher and higher until finally reaching "the arms of the Beloved."
The second half of the concert featured Lauridsen's "Lux Aeterna," a piece for orchestra and choir that uses a mix of words from the Requiem Mass as well as various sacred Latin texts that reference light.
"The piece was composed to give solace and strength to those grieving departed souls with the uplifting and comforting idea of Eternal Light forever shining on them," Lauridsen wrote in the program notes.
"Lux Aeterna" is a showcase for beauty of choral and orchestral sound, and it certainly showed the LA Master Chorale at its best. Here is a group of musicians who sing with intention, achieving not only a purity of pitch but of sound, tone quality and syllabic uniformity. That beauty alone is great solace.
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