Posted tagged ‘national presbyterian church’

Strike the Drum and Join the Chorus: Washington Bach Consort, December 19, 2010

December 20, 2010

Most Christmas concerts present ultra-familiar repertoire, seeking to distinguish themselves in presentation. At most, they’ll throw in a few lesser-known hymns or songs to pique the audience’s interest. For the Washington Bach Consort’s Christmas concert, on Sunday at the National Presbyterian Church, founder and music director J. Reilly Lewis did not choose this path.

Instead, Lewis led a 16-voice choir in an exquisitely sung concert of Christmas-inspired music from classical’s early years, all of it fascinating and most of it little-known. Apart from organist Scott Detra’s performance of a Bach prelude on “Von Himmel hoch” (BWV 738), in which the melody is just occasionally recognizable, the first familiar tune came in the second piece after intermission, in a series of insanely florid settings of verses “In dulci jublio” by Hieronymous Praetorius. (Also, I am not sure that “Von Himmel hoch” counts as a “familiar tune” for anyone not raised Lutheran, as I was. Adjust accordingly.)

The concert thus put one in mind not of celebrations of Christmas but of the miracle of Christ’s birth as perceived way back in the day. Most Christmas music tugs at the heartstrings in part because it was playing during heartstring-tugging moments in our lives. Without those associations, this music provided a total focus on the Nativity, and the WBC’s precise, joyful performances served as a reminder of what a strange and awe-inspiring story it is.

It’s too bad that the program did not list the names of the 16 choristers, since they put on a clinic on Sunday. Felicitous details abounded. In Giovanni Gabrieli’s “Beata es, Virgo Maria,” the melody for the words “intercede pro nobis” — “intercede for us,” i.e., with God — slides downward on “nobis.” The WBC singers articulated this so clearly that you could almost see a penitent sinner bowing down before the altar. Rafaella Aleotti’s “Angelus ad pastores alt,” setting the “tidings of great joy” verses of the Bible in high Renaissance style, ends on a slightly dissonant modal Alleluia that the WBC made searing in its intensity — a manifestation of the idea of joy so complete it’s almost painful. The choir showed their range in Jan Pieterszoon Sweelink’s “Gaudete omnes,” which began in a major-key, dance-y mood before dipping briefly into a seemingly bottomless well of yearning on the words “expectatio nostra” (“our hope”). Such singing consistently made vivid the emotional world of each piece, even when the pieces were so short it seemed they were over before they began.

A couple of the pieces Lewis and the WBC performed should probably be added to the collective Christmas playlist. Martin Peerson’s “Upon my lap my Sov’reign sits” has a refrain of “Sing lullaby, my little Boy/Sing lullaby, mine only joy!” In this performance, the song actually sounded lullabyish with a palpable hush and precisely formed, warm harmonies. And the piece by Hieronymous Praetorius (no relation to Michael) mentioned earlier, a Magnificat incorporating “Joseph Lieber, Joseph mein” as well as “In dulci jublio,” contrasted the hymns with energetic declarations of God’s might and mercy while sending sopranos soaring above the melodic lines of said hymns; the result consistently defied expectations, always a challenge for 400-year-old music. (The passing moments of strain in the sopranos here seemed designed to highlight just how impressive the rest of the singing was.)

The concert also featured a Latin tinge, by which I mean not Latin texts but music from Spain and Latin America. Not coincidentally, the two most fun pieces featured a drum: Lewis actually led the choir into the sanctuary while beating the skins in Juan Pérez Bocanegra’s “Hanacpachap cussicuinin,” coming to us from Peru and the 17th century; the surprise of hearing percussion was matched by the fierceness of Bocanegra’s harmonies, not to mention the fearsome ancient consonantal combinations. Besides the return of the drum, Spanish composer Geronimo Gonzalez’s “Serenissima una noche” featured also a really bouncy, catchy melody you immediately wanted to hear again.

Organ interludes found Dettra delivering an agile, cunningly paced performance of a Domenico Scarlatti fugue, besides blazing through a couple pieces by the usual suspect with the initials “JSB.” The interludes showed off Nat Pres’ wonderful organ and gave both singers and audience the opportunity to rest from the imaginative act of perceiving Christ’s birth as it was perceived in the 16th and 17th centuries. Lewis and the Washington Bach Consort gave a concert that was truly transporting, but ultimately, few people want to spend all of Christmastime away from home.

Handel, With Care: The City Choir of Washington, April 11, 2010

April 14, 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.