This month, the Kennedy Center is putting on a choral festival called “Voices of America.” It was supposed to be a big initiative, filling the city of Washington with song, coinciding with the annual meeting of the service organization Chorus America, and culminating with a chorus of thousands singing from the steps of the Capitol. In the event, though, the festival seems to amount to a sequence of Millennium Stage concerts, and the Capitol concert has morphed into a celebration of the Star-Spangled Banner at the Smithsonian.
So it was left to the Choral Arts Society and the Washington Chorus to represent with a joint concert, “Made in America,” at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Wednesday night. It wasn’t even a part of the festival proper.
A big chorus brings out a kind of team spirit, and hometown pride was writ large here. Two other local groups joined the massed bank of choristers, more than 200 voices strong; the Children’s Chorus of Washington and the instrumentalists of the Great Noise Ensemble came on and off the stage before them, like bright leaves born on the current. The Choral Arts Society’s Scott Tucker has shown himself to be a team player this spring; this was the second concert in this hall in the last three months that he’s divided equally with another conductor – in this case, the Washington Chorus’s Julian Wachner.
Wachner’s half of the evening was unusual in starting with the crowd-pleasers first: five spirituals arranged by four different composers, which warmed up listeners while giving (with, for example, “Ain’a that good news” by William L. Dawson) a good sense of the elasticity and responsiveness of this large group of singers. For all of their size, the groups approached the spirituals with admirable restraint — perhaps too much restraint in Stanley Thurston’s arrangement of “Jesus Walked That Lonesome Valley,” with a male soloist who sounded pale despite, or precisely because of, being heavily miked.
There followed three palate-cleansers by Stephen Paulus, Andrea Ramsey, and Paul Caldwell and Sean Ivory, clearly and limpidly sung by the Children’s Chorus and conducted with commitment by Joan Gregoryk. Then came a carefully balanced, politically correct blend of composers of different ethnicities — female, African American, Latino — starting with a world premiere by Armando Bayolo, the Great Noise Ensemble’s founder and artistic director, called “Lincoln,” set to a text by Vachel Lindsay and accompanied by an electric guitar, which juxtaposed awkwardly with the hundreds of voices in the big space.
Trevor Weston’s “Ashes” was an arresting antiphonal setting of the 102nd Psalm, with the children’s chorus standing in an aisle of the auditorium and the adult voices, at one point, diffusing into a Jackson-Pollock-like all-over aural canvas made up of myriad licks of individual vocalism. Elena Ruehr’s “Cricket, Spider, Bee” was a lively setting of three Emily Dickinson poems that slightly belabored its musical points, and Wachner’s “Jubilate Deo” tried slightly too hard to end on a big, exciting, bombastic note, somewhat dwarfing the vocal forces with a lot of organ and brass.
The second half of the program offered a performance version of Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass,” prepared by Doreen Rao, which the Bernstein estate must have sanctioned but which I disliked intensely. Rao essentially attempts to turn a work of drama into a concert piece, while leaving in long passages for the male soloist (Rodrick Dixon, who produced some beautiful ringing tones in an uneven vocal line), cobbled together from three different roles, and omitting a couple of choral numbers I’d have thought were central to the piece (the Kyrie Rondo, for example). My main beef, however, was with Rao’s willingness to chop up individual numbers, particularly the first (instrumental) meditation, which started up in the middle, a presentation that seemed less like an abridgement than a CliffsNotes version. Madeline Apple Healey offered some gorgeous singing in a murderously high and sadly brief soprano part, the children’s chorus was made to order for this assignment, and Dixon was charismatic. But the whole thing could have used some of Wachner’s conducting flair; Tucker, though well meaning, was as bland and plodding as this version. All the groups still deserve credit for an unusual and generally enjoyable evening.