Handel, With Care: The City Choir of Washington, April 11, 2010
Robert Shafer, artistic director of the City Choir of Washington, suggested at the group’s Sunday concert in the National Presbyterian Church that their Handel program was part of the “Easter season.” Immediately, the text-sensitive noted that the God featured in the two little-heard choral works the City Choir performed doesn’t seem like the same guy who sacrificed his only-begotten son so that he who believes in Him would have eternal life. The concert’s God was all about making “your enemies your footstool,” as in the Psalm 110 text of “Dixit Dominus,” and letting “the ungodly perish at the presence of God,” in “Let God Arise,” from Psalms 68 and 76.
The sound of the concert never quite matched the aggressiveness in the texts. The concert opened with Georg Friederich’s Organ Concerto in F, Op. 4, No. 5, with William Neil, organist and harpsichordist of the National Symphony, tooting the reeds alongside a pickup orchestra under Shafer’s direction. Rather than a sharp Baroque sound, the Nat Pres organ has the rich sound you normally want to hear in Romantic rep, and the resonant acoustic of the chapel inflated and blurred the string accompaniment, making for much less incisiveness than we have become accustomed to in Baroque performance. The plusher, less distinct sound had its own wallowing appeal; the performance itself would have had more appeal were it not for some second-movement slips in coordination between Neil and Shafer.
Neil stayed at the keyboard for “Let God Arise,” the last of the Chandos Anthems, in which the headliners took over. Shafer sure does know how to prepare a chorus, and he had the City Choir singing all the words clearly (I know I tend to go on about this) and with great gusto. The homophony of “Praised be the Lord” felt deep and wide enough to wallow in, while the two closing choruses of exaltation lifted to the roof of the church. (While Nat Pres is not a great venue for instrumental music, it has flattered every chorus I have heard perform in it.)
Yet the whole thing felt like an appetizer when the CCers presented the main course that was “Dixit Dominus.” In his remarks, Shafer expressed a special fondness for this score, written by the ambitious teenage Handel and subsequently deemed unperformable. (Shafer, equally ambitious in his realm, first essayed it with a high-school chorus.) The difficulty derives from sudden meter changes, splits of the choral forces into opposing groups, and perhaps the free ‘n’ easy mixture of styles that helps make the work pretty much a nonstop cavalcade of interesting music. The City Choir’s performance occasionally reminded one how the work got its rep, with clots of sound and messy transitions. More often, though, they showed why folks should have been trying to perform it anyway, with a fearsome remonstration to open “Juravit Dominus” (“The Lord has sworn”), some nimble, hushed polyphony in “Judicabit in nationibus,” and a Doxology massive and forceful, like an icon carved of stone, to close it out.
Shafer described the solo vocalists as young artists transitioning between school and a professional career, and each made pretty noises but has some crucial stuff to work on. Mezzo Kelly Tice let the ends of many phrases languish and sang into her scorebook occasionally. Sopranos Robin Smith and Sarah Shafer conveyed to my seat no consonants at all in their “Dixit” duo. Tenor David Merrill and bass Drew Colby both had trouble projecting above the massed forces and, when they could be heard, sounded as anonymous as mayo on white.
After the final “Amen” in “Dixit Dominus,” Shafer left the stage and had to be reminded to come back for the promised “Hallelujah” Chorus. It would have been something of an anticlimax except that here the audience got to participate. Finally, a good reason to stand, because the fact that some English king did it 300 years ago does not count as a good reason. In America, of all places, we shouldn’t be kowtowing to Brit royalty. (As a bonus, the performance served as a welcome reminder that we all should be hearing the “Hallelujah” Chorus in spring, not winter, since “Messiah” is really an Easter work.) I pretty much sang whatever part felt most interesting at any given moment and had a grand old time, though I can’t promise that my seat-neighbors felt the same way.