Lagrime di San Pietro is the final masterpiece of Renaissance composer Orlando di Lasso. It sets 21 poems by Luigi Tansillo on the general theme of Peter’s regret at betraying Christ and his lifelong regret for that. They also deal with the end of life when the nearness of death and the pain of living make one long for death. There’s even one poem where Peter regrets that he, who has seen Christ raise the dead and heal the lame, can no longer remember it happening. Unsurprisingly they were banned by the Catholic Church and so di Lasso can have had no expectation that the work, composed in the last weeks of his life would ever be performed. Structurally the work is seven part polyphony sung a capella. There are 20 eight line madrigals plus a motet.
The version of the Lagrime, created by Peter Sellars and Grant Gershon, and performed at Koerner Hall last night by the Los Angeles Master Chorale is really interesting. It’s sung from memory and staged with much movement from singers and conductor in a recognisably Sellars like fashion. This doesn’t just make for visual interest and visual clues to the polyphony, it subtly changes what the choir can do. As the piece progresses it moves from characteristically beautiful, if rather repetitive, polyphony to something edgier (indeed uglier) as poet and composer start to explore the themes of death, loss of faith, loss of memory and despair. I’m not sure a choir singing from stands could manage the attack that a choir literally punching themselves into a note can do. The effect is to lift it out of the concert experience to something much more intense.
The performance is truly remarkable. This is really difficult music and would challenge any choir sung conventionally. To blend it with such complex movement and to incorporate the intensity that the 21 singers bring to the stage is remarkable. This is truly an extraordinary choir. This is not a comfortable piece or a mere spectacle. You won’t go home humming the tunes but it is a remarkably intense and disturbing musical and psychological experience.
There’s another chance to see it today at 2pm with a pre show chat at 1pm which will no doubt be as insightful (and very funny) as last night.