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Grammys 2022: Classical record captures power, emotion with symphony cover

(Katelyn Dang/Illustrations director)

By Laura Carter

March 1, 2022 2:49 p.m.

This post was updated March 30 at 10:33 p.m.

“Symphony of a Thousand” made the hearts of the National Children’s Chorus sing with power and precision.

The recording of the chorus’ pre-pandemic concert of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 in E flat major, “Symphony of a Thousand,” received Grammy Award nominations for Best Choral Performance and Best Engineered Album, Classical. Featuring the Los Angeles Philharmonic and four choirs, including the National Children’s Chorus, the recording captures the power and emotion present in the symphony, said alumnus Luke McEndarfer, the artistic director and CEO of the National Children’s Chorus.

“A lot of times you can’t hear the children’s choir … because their notes are often doubled by powerful instruments in the orchestra,” McEndarfer said. “To hear the children’s part come through like a laser in this recording with such spectacular tone was extremely gratifying.”

In 2019, the LA Philharmonic, along with the LA Children’s Chorus, the LA Master Chorale, the Pacific Chorale and the National Children’s Chorus, performed a rendition of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, McEndarfer said. The four performances were recorded but remained relatively undisturbed until last spring when the record label Deutsche Grammophon announced the release of the recording, said Grant Gershon, the LA Master Chorale artistic director.

[Related: UCLA faculty member strikes emotional chord in Grammy-nominated tribute album]

When the children’s chorus was asked to accompany other choral groups in this performance, it was already prepared to perform the piece, McEndarfer said. One previous performance of the symphony took place in 2012 when Gustavo Dudamel was appointed the music director of the LA Philharmonic, he said. The 2012 performance included around 10 different choirs, but the Deutsche Grammophon recording only used four choirs and was performed in a smaller concert hall, McEndarfer said.

“This is not our first (performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8) with (Dudamel) and the LA Philharmonic,” McEndarfer said. “It was also inside in a much more acoustically refined space. … With far fewer voices, the volume was so loud. It was such a visceral experience.”

Achieving this tone with the children’s chorus came in part because of UCLA voice performance professor Michael Dean. Because of his knowledge of German – the language used in the symphony – and his experience as a voice professor, McEndarfer asked him to help refine the German pronunciation, diction and translation in the piece, Dean said. The pair worked extensively to ensure the language performed in the symphony would positively contribute to the work as a whole, and Dean said this knowledge was then passed from McEndarfer to the National Children’s Chorus in rehearsal.

After receiving news of the nomination, Dean said he thought of the lasting impact the whole project would have on the children included in the National Children’s Chorus. Oftentimes, musical performances are fleeting experiences, as some are never revisited by musicians after the performance. Therefore, the project’s recognition can help build the self-esteem of the children and motivate them to continue as musicians.

“This is something they can enjoy for the rest of their lives,” Dean said. “It is such a huge boost of confidence for them to continue making music their whole lives. … This is the kind of thing that can excite them about making music.”

[Related: Grammy-nominated alumnus creates Brazilian-inspired album with focus on motherhood]

Gershon, another collaborator on the project, said the nomination came by surprise because the performance took place before the pandemic. One of the challenges the groups faced in rehearsing for the performance was making sure there was a balance between the choirs and the orchestra, he said.

Since the symphony commands a strong orchestral presence, it is difficult to ensure the choirs are mixed well sonically with the instrumental parts, Gershon said. With the help of the record label and the music directors, the recording was able to effectively capture the power of the performance by splicing together various sections of the performance, he added.

“(Deutsche Grammophon) had four different performances that had complete captures, so they had a lot of alternate takes … (and) a lot of materials to work with,” Gershon said. “That’s part of why it leaps out of your speakers and into your consciousness (in) such a clear and extreme way.”

For McEndarfer, working on the performance was a gratifying experience for both himself and the National Children’s Chorus members. The fact that the nomination includes the names of the musical engineers, as well as the LA Philharmonic and choirs with the names of their respective directors, shows the extensive involvement of many different musicians in the production process, he said.

“I got to sit in the audience of one of the three performances,” McEndarfer said. “For the other two, I was by the side stage door, backstage, and it was really one of the most moving and spectacular musical experiences of my life, and I think a lot of people (in attendance) share that.”

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