Cathedral Choral Society opens 71st season

The Cathedral Choral Society opened its 71st season with a tribute to the flowering of late romantic music in France. This grand program, at Washington National Cathedral on Sunday afternoon, combined the cathedral’s imposing organ, multiple choruses and a vast orchestra, which are not always suited to the cavernous space.

In Maurice Durufle’s evanescent setting of the Latin Requiem Mass, a lush rethinking of the Gregorian chant melodies for the Mass of the Dead, the combined forces murmured and undulated. Durufle was perhaps the most skilled composer of the 20th century at setting Gregorian chant, a body of music that he revered; late in life, he railed against its removal from the Catholic liturgy in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. The composer’s original large orchestration sometimes came close to smothering the chorus, kept intentionally soft, but it made for transporting climaxes in the “Domine Jesu Christe” and “Osanna” sections.

Mezzo-soprano Carla Dirlikov displayed a rich sound, full at the bottom, in the crucial “Pie Jesu” movement but missed the mark by rushing the piece and undermining its sense of simple repose, while baritone Michael Kelly was not imposing enough in his solo moments. A chorus of children’s voices from St. John Academy and National Cathedral School was an angelic presence, isolated in the choir largely unseen, but the distance from the orchestra led it astray in terms of intonation.

Where greater precision was needed, the vastness of the acoustic played havoc with the coordination of ensemble, perhaps not helped by conductor J. Reilly Lewis’s sometimes imprecise beat. This was most pronounced in the fast movements of Saint-Saens’s “Organ Symphony” and particularly disheveled in the Presto section of the second movement. Organist Todd Fickley blasted the roof off as needed, here and in two shorter motets by Franck and Dupre.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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