There are not very many pieces of music that express the ravages and mental discomforts of age. Older people riven by regret and lack of faith have not exactly been a sought-after demographic audience in any artistic era, and we have all sorts of defense mechanisms in us to imagine that we ourselves won’t end up in that position. Perhaps that is all the more reason that when such a piece as Orlando di Lasso’s The Tears of St. Peter is performed there should practically be a warning label attached, especially for an audience member familiar with the recursively searching depressions of age.
Orlando di Lasso was one of the great prolific composers of the High Renaissance in the 16th Century. If you haven’t heard much of him or his music, it’s probably just because you haven’t lived in a world with much exposure to Renaissance choral music. And even if you have heard of him it is doubtful you know the Lagrime, his last work. And even if you know the Lagrime it’s unlikely you have ever heard them performed as a group. They are 21 separate pieces all revolving around St. Peter’s denial of Christ and taken together last about 80 minutes.
The performance last weekend by the Los Angeles Master Chorale was the first time I had ever seen them performed live and the performance was devastatingly beautiful. The decision to stage and choreograph the performance was essential. Without that, I don’t think the pieces would have made sense, and we would have been asking the kind of questions one asks about Bach’s Art of Fugue:, i. e. ‘Is this collection actually meant to be performed or does it just exist as a sort of testament?’. The brilliance of this presentation was that with this staging, a performance of the complete Lagrime was actually possible. And immediate. And arresting.
Even though I grew up in choral music, I’m not as allergic to “choralography” as some of my friends. For me, the choreography and staging only rarely seemed to get in the way, mainly when it too literally reflected the words of the music. If anything, I would have wanted more diversity of movement. But the director’s choices made more and more sense by the end of the piece when the action became much quieter and the work transitioned from an acting out of Peter’s betrayal to his agonized reflections in old age. Then, just a few flashes of action were able to portray the painful memories that kept passing in front of Peter. That progression to the exhausted ending made it worthwhile. Painful, and horribly reminiscent of my own family members who lost faith late in life, but . . . worthwhile.
Like I said, a warning label would have been appropriate, but as with a lot of great art, the reveal at the end, while foreseeable, is richer in truth than any statement about it. I didn’t think I needed reminders of those episodes in my own family that Lagrime echoed, but those moments were true, and this performance connected me to them.
It helped that the staging at the end portrayed a loving reconciliation and repose that the words did not. That artistic decision was very Christian in the best sense. Whether that brief moment was enough to balance the clouded darkness of the previous hour, I’m not sure, but it was powerful.
None of this would have been possible without these performers. The Los Angeles Master Chorale is a stunning collection of individuals, lead with purpose and communal affection. They shine.
And the High Renaissance style is particularly demanding. It requires utter ease, solidity and flexibility, and the poised endurance of the singers was simply never a question. As the technique became invisible, the delicate, raw beauty of the emotion came pouring through. It made the unusual form and length seem necessary and intentional. The extreme length of the a cappella performance became itself part of the expression, part of the presentation of the obsessions of age where time rushing on seems to stop and return to the same moments over and over, the past more vivd than the present, one’s faith in the future more clouded. I wanted to hold my father’s hand, my grandmother’s hand again and tell them I love them still.