Since the Los Angeles Master Chorale first performed its dramatic staging of Orlando di Lasso’s Lagrime di San Pietro (Tears of St. Peter) in 2016, the ensemble has toured the production around the world. For music director Grant Gershon, however, the chorale’s Santa Fe performance on Friday, May 31, will be a special occasion — a homecoming of sorts.
“It’s coming around full-circle,” the conductor said, recalling how this project came to life in Santa Fe. “Back then, it was just a gleam in the eye.”
In the summer of 2011, Gershon and famed opera director Peter Sellars were at the Santa Fe Opera for a production of Vivaldi’s Griselda. There, the two men decided to collaborate on a project involving the chorale, with nothing specific in mind.
Gershon and Sellars collaborated with American composer John Adams on Adams’ oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary, which the chorale and the Los Angeles Philharmonic premiered in 2012. The following year they adapted it into a staged production. When Adams learned about the possibility of another Sellars/Gershon production, he offered a suggestion. “John told us to look at the [Orlando di] Lasso,” Sellars said. “I went there, and said, ‘We’ve got to do it.’ ”
It turns out that Gershon was way ahead of him.
“I’d been fascinated by Lagrime for many years,” the conductor recalled. “Its emotional intensity is so palpable. It’s like I had a spiritual relationship with it.” Lasso’s work uses texts by Renaissance poet Luigi Tansillo and consists of 20 madrigals, concluding with a single motet.
Lasso’s writing is “beyond belief,” said Sellars, speaking shortly before he left with the chorale for a London performance of Lagrime (pronounced LAH-gree-may). “Grant and I never worked with music this demanding. We were just losing our minds with the immensity of it.”
“Peter’s first take on the idea,” Gershon said, “was that this would be the hardest thing we’d ever done. Frankly, I still don’t know how the singers do it.” Instead of standing still with scores in hand, the costumed cast members become mobile actors in a sung drama, which requires the singers to memorize their parts. Sellars created group movements and facial expressions specifically linked to Tansillo’s texts. The poems imagine St. Peter’s deeply felt anguish and guilt after denying Jesus three times, as Jesus had predicted at the Last Supper. Translations of the poems are projected above the stage.
As rehearsals began in Los Angeles in 2016, Gershon decided he would use only 21 chorale singers, divided into “pods” of three. What makes this music particularly difficult, he said, is that none of the seven-part madrigals contain a complete melody for one singer. “Those separate [musical] lines only make sense when sung in combination with all the others. Our first priority was to deal with the music in intensive ways. And we needed to dive into the poetry, to become adept in Italian. But everyone was enthusiastic. They were intrigued by the challenges.”
After 12 music rehearsals, Sellars arrived and his creative juices began to flow. “If you could do an EKG on Peter,” Gershon joked, “it would show a fireworks display of imagination. I’d say that 90 percent of what we ended up with resulted from that first rehearsal. Peter came in having given the project a great deal of thought. In rehearsal, he was pretty much making it up as he went along. One thing was clear from the start: Compromising was not something he was interested in.”
Sellars had a different take on his involvement. “I suddenly discovered I’d be doing this project a couple of weeks before rehearsals began,” he said. “Earlier, I had told my manager about working with Grant and the chorale, and she just put it on my schedule. But it was OK. I always work in the moment. We had to move fast, creating two madrigals each night. Really, this was a thrilling experience. It was hard at first, and then it got harder as we got deeper into the music. But now, [the singers] own it.”
Sellars instructed the singers to move and emote individually and collectively, occasionally sending them sprawling on the floor or hunching them over, while their faces often showed Peter’s agony. “It takes you out of yourself,” Gershon said of this new experience. “Each of the parts are so intensely beautiful. In my view, just standing and singing this music is actually a bigger challenge.”
After weeks of furious preparation, the work was ready to be premiered. “I’m a pretty calm guy usually,” Gershon said, “but a week before the first performance in L.A., I was completely freaked out. I felt as though I was leading them lemming-like over the cliff. But then we had a rehearsal where everything suddenly clicked, like we’d turned a corner.”
The chorale, garbed in drab, off-the-rack casual clothes, is led by a similarly mobile conductor wearing black. Instinctively, Gershon found himself crouching in front or sliding around to the back. “I try to be invisible,” he said. “I’m there for the singers. It’s best if they don’t look at me and if I don’t make eye contact.”
Reviewers of the October 2016 premiere in the Walt Disney Concert Hall unanimously praised the production. Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed called the performance “revelatory ... a major accomplishment for the Master Chorale, which sang and acted brilliantly. It is also a major accomplishment for music history.”
Critics weren’t the only ones captivated. “Our audiences have been overwhelmed,” Gershon said. “For the huge majority of them, this is their first encounter with the music.”
After more than a dozen performances, the chorale’s Lagrime continues to unfold, Sellars said. “I’m still revising it. I changed some things five days ago. You tend to go deeper in the work once you know its language.”
Gershon called it a “towering and unique masterpiece. ... It seems like every phrase goes where you don’t expect it to, but you’re swept along by its wonderful harmonies.” ◀
▼ The Los Angeles Master Chorale performs Orlando di Lasso’s Lagrime di San Pietro, presented by Performance Santa Fe
▼ 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 31
▼ Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St.
▼ $14.50-$110; 505-988-1234, ticketssantafe.org