From Adams Morgan to Johannes Brahms: The 18th Street Singers at First Trinity Lutheran Church, January 22, 2011
It’s a cliché to laud the robust choral-music scene of the DMV, but seriously, if you want to sing in a group and sound awesome, this is the place to be. Case in point: The 18th Street Singers, which, their website informs us, was formed because its members “were eager for a serious musical outlet that would also fulfill the social and time constraints of life as young adults in the District. Hearing none, we proceeded to build our own.” They formed in 2004, and this spring they’ll be singing at the Piccolo Spoleto Festival, followed by a Kennedy Center concert in June. Such is the way things go here.
Most of the 18th Streeters’ concerts present a mix of genres: classical, spirituals, world music, contemporary pieces in a choral vein, etc. Their concert Saturday night at First Trinity Lutheran Church, though, emphasized European art music; indeed, artistic director Benjamin Olinsky said this was “a concert that brings together the best works by the best composers for choir of all time.” This was clearly hyperbole, as “Jesu, meine Freude” was not included, but the concert did provide a nice cross-section of a cappella works to display these choristers’ talents.
They sing well. They have a nice tonal blend, they listen to each other, they pronounce texts clearly. Most of all, though, the 18th Street Singers showed on Saturday that they are amateurs in the best sense: they love singing, and want you to love it too. Olinsky and assistant music directors Ron Lee and Sarah Redmond, trading off conducting duties throughout, went for vivid effects: sharp pauses, big fortissimos (sometimes a little too big, and thus rough), pianissimos that made you lean forward in your seat. Yet the subtle harmonic details of (for example) two sacred pieces by Anton Bruckner got plenty of attention as well, and everyone involved seemed to greatly enjoy shaping a melody, an approach that works across many genres.
They’re helped by First Trinity, which has lovely wood-and-glass-aided acoustics and an intimate nave; on Saturday the 44-person choir, in a semicircle in front of the altar, seemed almost to surround the audience in the pews. The dramatic stereo effect pumped up the impact of Robert Schumann’s Four Songs for Double Choir, which opened the program — you could hear clearly each group shaping its own harmonies, responding to the other’s development of the melodic line. That acoustic also helped the choir when it lathered a warm, luxuriant sound on a melody; sometimes I wished for a little more diversity of tone production, but that sound gave a lot of pleasure Saturday evening.
Presenting the classix a little differently than normal seems to come naturally to this group of young professional types. (Note: I am technically a young professional, but in fact I have the crankiness of someone twice my age.) For example, before the last piece on the program, the choristers presented Olinsky with a large bottle of Disaronno Amaretto; the liquor’s ridiculous commercial (which you should really watch at that link) features the smoooooth utterance “Disaronno…on the rocks,” which Olinsky uses as a direction to the choir to achieve that warm, luxuriant sound. This is the type of thing Robert Shafer just isn’t going to tell you.
More substantively, the program contained no notes on the music; instead, members of the group stepped forward before each work and said a few words. The dude who thought that the plural noun describing Franz Schubert’s art songs was “lieders” (even Wikipedia knows how that plural works) threw me off before a performance of “Die Nacht.” But another chorister’s tale of getting her baby to giggle while practicing Jacob Handl’s “Ascendit Deus” made a perfect prelude to a giddily spirited run-through of that piece. However, I must argue that choirs who are performing songs in other languages owe it to the audience to give some idea of what the text is about, rather than providing a quick bio of the composer. And yes, everything on the program was referred to as a “song,” which was a bit weird for the settings of sacred texts.
Yet these performances showed a group that takes what they’re singing plenty seriously. For me, the highlight of the concert was Brahms’ “Warum is das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen,” which sets passages from the story of Job and commentaries thereon. Here the opening cries of “Warum?” (“Why?”) resounded through First Trinity, the pauses after opening up space to wonder, and the 18th Street Singers ably navigated Brahms’ intricate settings, breathing musical life into questions that have no satisfying answers. Near the end of the program, they sang “Shenandoah,” apparently a 18th Street standard, and less complex music rang with the same wonder and feeling. Both indicated that the 18th Street Singers are ready to become another star in the DMV’s choral firmament.
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