Washington Master Chorale first-rate in performance of 20th-century works


Washington Master Chorale. (Jonathan Black)
March 4, 2013

If you want great choral music, Washington is the place to go, with its half-dozen or more massive symphonic choruses and plentiful supply of chamber ensembles. And they all come equipped with splendid orchestras. Founded in 2009, the Washington Master Chorale gave a first-rate performance — including a world premiere by Donald McCullough — at the National Presbyterian Church on Sunday. Over 60 voices strong, the WMC adds another dimension to the choral scene with a group fitting in between the grand and small-sized chamber groups.

The WMC focused on some lovely 20th-century works set to texts by such well-known poets as Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. Besides McCullough, the composers included Daniel Pinkham, Cecil Effinger, Ross Lee Finney, Samuel Barber, Adolphus Hailstork and Stephen Chatman. Throughout the program, the chorus responded to director Thomas Colohan’s exacting gestures, intonation was superbly stable — even in unaccompanied works — while all the sections paid close attention to each other in nearly perfect ensemble. The single flaw was imprecise, fuzzy diction, even though all the texts were in English.

All the musical settings were solidly tonal, making them accessible, audience-friendly and performable by all well-trained choral groups. The centerpiece of the day was the premiere of McCullough’s “The Eye Begins to See.” The composition, which expressed the confession of an oppressed soul drowning in pathos, voiced many shades of darkness but was relieved ultimately by light and hope. Dissonant outbursts in this piece were effective.

Colohan drew dramatic power from his singers, joined by the vocal quartet Words & Music along with cellist Kacy Clopton and pianists Mark Vogel and Virginia Sircy. Oboist Alison Lowell lent a mournful tone to Effinger’s “Four Pastorales.”

All in all, the concert was skillfully wrought and moving. But the sad fact is that, apart from the scores of major composers such as Bach, Handel, Verdi, and Monteverdi — choral music such as that heard Sunday rarely reaches the general public and major concert halls.

Porter is a freelance writer.

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