Wachner and Washington Chorus deftly navigate ‘Essential Wagner’

(Margot Schulman/Margot Schulman) - Julian Wachner conducts during the Washington Chorus program, \"The Essential Wagner.\"

There’s usually a difference between conductors and choral conductors. Conductors lead orchestras, and sometimes opera; choral conductors tend to have focused on the voice.

Julian Wachner, who has led the Washington Chorus since 2008, is something of an exception in that he trained as a conductor (as well as a composer), and has led several orchestras and operas across the country. This difference emerges in the Washington Chorus’s programming, particularly in the series performed for the past four years that focuses on musical highlights of composers such as Puccini and Mahler, who don’t often show up on amateur choral concerts. The latest installment came Sunday afternoon at the Kennedy Center, a program called “The Essential Wagner.”

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To say this was risky is an understatement. Wagner is a challenge to conduct, especially with an orchestra that doesn’t regularly play together, and Wachner didn’t shy away from the big guns: Isolde’s “Liebestod” from “Tristan und Isolde,” the overture to “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg,” and “The Ride of the Valkyries” from “Die Walkuere.” A program like this, part artistic challenge and part pops concert, could be an act of hubris, and it could be a complete train wreck. It’s to Wachner’s credit that it was, instead, a rollicking good time.

Wachner is conductor enough to make it all go — a little heavy in some of the excerpts, with the over-clear beat of a choral conductor leading to some plodding in the “Flying Dutchman” scene that opened the program, but emphatic and theatrical and at home in opera so that he could bring out the requisite sense of drama.

And the afternoon turned out to be a great use of a good amateur chorus. The singers got to sink their teeth into repertoire few choral singers have a chance to perform; you can’t tell me it wasn’t terrific fun to be in the women’s chorus and serve as part of a veritable army of Valkyries (backing up the penetrating soloist Othalie Graham, who took on the trickier parts). A group of young soloists — the event was produced with the Wagner Society’s Evelyn Lear and Thomas Stewart Emerging Singers Program — had the chance to get some Wagner experience onstage (including Graham and the able tenor Patrick Cook).

The audience seemed to be enjoying itself mightily. And Wachner got to stretch his limbs in a repertory that his music directorships at the Washington Chorus and Trinity Wall Street in New York don’t often allow him, and remind himself, if not the world, that he’s not limited to the standard choral repertory.

There was an extra thrill in the final selection, most of the last two scenes of “Meistersinger,” with tenor Issachah Savage singing the famous Prize Song. Savage is a Catholic University alum who’s been winning competitions for a few years and singing in the Washington area as well as around the country, but I wasn’t prepared for the easy, rich, warm sound that poured out of him in one of the most beautiful arias in the repertory. He did, alas, lose a little steam at the end, and wasn’t able to hold out the last few high notes as long as he might; but this is a small caveat about a world-class voice. Wachner gave him a special bow and the audience roared for him in an appropriate salute to a slightly lowbrow but awfully fun afternoon.

The Washington Chorus’s next concert, devoted to the contemporary composer Paola Prestini, is June 23 at the Terrace Theater.

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