Music Review: MIGHTY PIPES (Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles at the First Congregational Church of L.A.)

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by Tony Frankel on April 3, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles


The Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles (GMCLA) has performed everywhere from the Alex Theatre to Avalon Hollywood and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, but never has the world-class chorus been in a venue as dramatic and spectacular as the First Congregational Church. Their latest concert, Mighty Pipes, under the spirited leadership of Artistic Director and conductor E. Jason Armstrong, was a showcase for the profoundly talented organist John West, who ably commanded the world’s largest church pipe organ.* It astounds that such a spectacular feat of aural engineering could exist right here in Los Angeles. As if the assemblage of over 200 singers and Tony-winner Levi Kreis wasn’t enough to stir the senses, the theatrical lighting by Steven Young added even more drama to the vaulted ceilings and gorgeous stained-glass windows of this 1932 gothic revival style church.

What struck me as odd were the musical selections, which mostly did not befit such a sanctified setting. In last year’s A Mighty Voice, GMCLA, as they did in the late 1990’s, displayed why they deserve the label of “world class chorus,” performing works that were meant to be performed in a cathedral. Certainly, clever selections were incorporated, but they simply felt like a wink and a nod to the religious surroundings: some of these themes were peace (the lovely “Imagine”); light (“Laulia”); sin (Santana’s “Evil Ways”) and priests (Nyro’s “Eli’s Comin’,” which featured the outstanding soloists Thomas Guastavino, Ed Carlo Arafiles and Patrick Beller). While Mighty Pipes showcased the proficiency, professionalism and sheer love and good will of the chorus, the production as a whole was hampered by incongruous selections, poor sight-lines, and a location which, oddly enough, was acoustically inadequate: the voices probably sounded better from God’s vantage point than from that of the audience.

Even more troubling was the centerpiece of the show: that mighty organ. John West displayed his well-known virtuosity by showcasing the usage of stops and the ways in which an organ mimics other instruments, but it sounded distant and was never used to rattle the house, which had me wondering whether the instrument, when used to full capacity, could damage the church.

Still, there were some mighty standouts, even as everything below the chorus’ bleachers could not be seen, including some soloists, the conductor, and the exceptional Michael Alfera on piano. Steven Landau’s amazing arrangement of Freddy Mercury’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” was made all the more thrilling by D.J. Pick’s emotional interpretation, and the placement of many singers in the transepts. A George Michael medley may seem inappropriate in a church, but the theme of Faith resonated and Pakk Hui’s glorious arrangement was skillfully executed, making this one of the best selections of the night. Who knew?

Marshall Webb wrote a fascinating arrangement of “Eleanor Rigby,” and the presentation highlighted the chorus’ interpretive skills. The few actual religious musical selections made evident the type of music lacking in this concert: among them Maurice Duruflé’s “Sanctus” and, in the concert’s most stunning arrangement (by Ethan Sperry), the traditional Indian raga “Ramkali,” which emphasized the dexterity of the chorus as they mimicked musical instruments.

Adding to the already shaky religious theme was the particularly strange Papa’s Prayer Medley (“Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” “Like a Prayer”); this may have worked in a decadal concert, but not here. And had “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” been done more like a jubilant gospel revival, it may not have been so lackluster.

The handsome Levi Kreis (who won his Tony for Million Dollar Quartet) is a uniquely fascinating performer – his soul is a miscellany of blues, Broadway, gospel, American Idol and classic rock. He is the ultimate showman, soulfully banging on the piano while delivering some expressively scorching vocals, such as “Heaven’s Hands.”

Mighty Pipes, with all of its precarious trappings, nonetheless confirmed why the GMCLA is a national treasure. The work that the chorus puts into the show (even as they pay dues!) is truly inspirational. Regardless of selections or location, they always sound amazing. And may I add that it was unquestionably agreeable to see a straightforward display of voices, versus some of the silly shenanigans and dancing included in past concerts? Someone must have answered my prayers.

*The program states that the organ is “perhaps the largest musical instrument existing in any church in the world today.” For clarification, enthusiasts can consult Wikipedia to see why this behemoth tower of wood and steel — really two separate organs playing from twin consoles — is also referred to as the world’s second largest church organ.

photos by Daniel G. Lam

Mighty Pipes
Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles
First Congregational Church in Los Angeles
played on March 24 & 25, 2012
for future events, visit GMCLA

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