At Washington National Cathedral, music fit for a queen

Washington National Cathedral works better as a stage set than as a concert space. Sound eddies and splashes around those majestic stone columns, leaving scores a bit bedraggled beneath the colorful stained glass. On Sunday, though, the City Choir of Washington, joined by the Shenandoah Conservatory Choir, used it as a kind of stage set. The concert — funded through a Kickstarter campaign — evoked the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II sixty years ago this June, down to an array of the music that was played then: Handel, Vaughan Williams, Parry. All we were missing were red carpets and the queen herself.

The highlight of the concert, though, wasn’t funded by the chorus at all — and cost about three times more than the rest of the event put together. Thanks to an unusual commission from the Legatum Institute, a British-based public-policy think tank, the choruses offered the world premiere of two pieces by the renowned British composer Sir John Tavener.

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If your focus is economics, you might muse on the fact that getting someone to write 15 minutes or so of music is so much pricier than getting a full orchestra, a couple of choruses and a space in which to perform it. Fame, of course, is a factor.

If your focus is music, then you should simply be happy, in such a space, to have a composer who knows how to write for it. Tavener’s music is religious and beautiful, qualities which make it well suited to performance in a church; furthermore, the composer — who was present at the concert — is interested in the properties of the space in which his work is performed. For “Three Hymns of George Herbert,” he positioned an antiphonal choir (an ensemble called Third Practice) in the balcony and placed other instruments, including bells, in the side galleries, so that jets of sound shot out from different directions. If you can’t control the acoustic, then make its eddying a part of your work.

Tavener’s music is also clear, but this is not unusual for a choral concert. While some contemporary instrumental works can seem obscure, new music written for chorus — and there was quite a bit of it on this program — is generally at pains to get its meaning across, to the brink of seeming facile. Tavener is not, in fact, facile (I found a marked contrast with Eric Whitacre’s “Lux aurumque,” which was also pretty but lacked Tavener’s underlying sense of rigor), but he can sound as if he is, setting text straightforwardly, one syllable to a note, with a kind of aesthetic economy. In “Tolstoy’s Creed,” the music seemed purely a vehicle for the words, the organ (played by J. Thomas Mitts) acting as a billboard through which to amplify the message, the chorus’s voices dropping away to an awed hush on the word “prayer” to convey the intimacy of the practice, just in case you missed the point.

The “Three Hymns,” though, were the main focus. The first, “Heaven,” made some simply ravishing sounds; each line was sung out in a shining arc and left suspended in the air, punctuated by an echo from the chorus in the balcony and then nudged by the gentle plosive chimes of bells. The final hymn, “Life,” was touched with a bittersweet hint of dissonance, like frost petals. It ended with a postlude in which instruments tangled, slightly chaotically, at a distance, perhaps to evoke the withered bouquet of flowers the poem describes — though again, that comparison is more facile than the music sounded.

The space didn’t necessarily do justice to the other pieces in what added up to a rather long concert. As a counterweight to the Tavener, the choirs presented a three-part work written by an American for a British premiere, Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. This was more intricate, more familiar, and more difficult to hear in the cathedral’s nave, despite crystalline singing by the young soloist Esther Ullberg (the other four soloists were hard to hear at all). And balancing the American Whitacre was the English-born Tarik O’Regan, represented by a compellingly propulsive section of his large-scaled “Triptych” in which the soloist Callie Schlegel sounded beautiful.

Add music from the 1953 coronation — two pieces by Vaughan Williams, Handel’s “Zadok the Priest,” Elgar’s “Nimrod” variation and Parry’s “I Was Glad” — and other British standbys, starting with Williams’s arrangement of “The Old Hundred” and ending with Parry’s “Jerusalem,” and you had a proper sense of event — albeit one that didn’t quite happen. Tavener, however, carries himself like compositional royalty, and perhaps his exit by wheelchair, at intermission, was a fitting substitute for a recessional.

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