In Washington's crowded choral scene, too much is just enough
Charles T. Downey
“Washington has too many choruses,” I wrote in these pages in 2011, when yet another large choral group, the Washington Master Chorale, appeared in a crowded landscape. Happily, the intervening years have proved me wrong. Washington’s choruses are thriving, and new groups continue to crop up.
Two recent performances represented another occasion to take the measure of this vibrant scene. Of the former old guard of choral conductors, only one remains: Robert Shafer still leads the City Choir of Washington, the chorus he founded in 2007 after his forced departure from the Washington Chorus. All three remaining symphonic choruses, however, are under relatively new artistic leadership: Christopher Bell at the Washington Chorus; Scott Tucker at the Choral Arts Society; and Steven Fox at the Cathedral Choral Society.
Tucker hardly counts as “new”; he took over Choral Arts after its founding director, Norman Scribner, retired in 2012. He leads the group’s large-scale performances, as well as more adventurous fare, such as the March 11 concert at Strathmore with the U.S. Marine Band marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of Walt Whitman, which included a world premiere by the composer Dominick DiOrio.
DiOrio, who teaches choral conducting at Indiana University, adapted and sewed together several Whitman excerpts in a sentimental, neo-Romantic style, with thrilling climaxes (crisply marshaled by conductor Col. Jason K. Fettig) that captured the overheated rhetoric of Whitman’s verse. There were literal moments, like the elegiac part for solo trumpet in “The Mystic Trumpeter,” while in the more rhapsodic middle section, the band accompanied the impassioned vocal lines with mysterious tremors of marimba, harp and glockenspiel.
The new work was just one element on a program that showcased Whitman, American music and, for good measure, the 150th anniversary of the death of Hector Berlioz. Randall Thompson’s a cappella “The Last Invocation,” also set to Whitman’s poetry, was more challenging, and its loud passages were electric. The band proved its seriousness with William Schuman’s “American Hymn,” a tapestry of gorgeous harmonies and striking textures. As for Berlioz, he was represented by a rare performance of the “Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale,” composed for a vast military band. The full forces of “The President’s Own” gave it an authoritative performance, from the stately opening funeral march, in which crashing fortissimos obliterated softer sections, to the heraldic finale with Choral Arts, complete with the shaken clangor of four Turkish crescents — basically posts covered with bells.
Unlike Tucker, Fox is certainly new, in his first season at the Cathedral Choral Society, one of the positions held by the late J. Reilly Lewis left vacant at his unexpected death. (Lewis’s other post, at the Washington Bach Consort, has been filled by Dana Marsh.) After opening his first season last fall with an unforgettable performance of Alexander Kastalsky’s “Commemoration for Fallen Brothers,” led by Leonard Slatkin, Fox accomplished another first on Sunday afternoon, filling Washington National Cathedral with the unaccompanied choral strains of Rachmaninoff’s “Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom,” which the chorus was singing for the first time.
Written in 1910, the piece was long neglected. The Russian Orthodox authorities disapproved of its supposed “modernism” and refused to allow it during church services, and it’s not an easy sing. In a nod to its liturgical origins, the large choir entered solemnly to the tolling of a distant bell. The singers responded with admirable concentration to Fox’s direction, giving maximum differentiation of dynamics — very loud, very soft — to this primarily homophonic music, while Leonid Roschko, protodeacon of St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in New Jersey, sang the prayers that interleaved some of the movements in a stentorian bass. With some long, silent pauses between movements, the work’s message of peace and mercy was a welcome balm as the evening light faded.