The Choral Arts Society of Washington paid homage on Sunday to 20th-century musical works that have become classics of the 21st-century repertoire. The event included performances of Igor Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms,”Morten Lauridsen’s “Lux Aeterna,” Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” and excerpts from Sergei Prokofiev’s cantata “Alexander Nevsky.” The concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall also marked the 47th year that Norman Scribner, founder and conductor of Choral Arts, has led it to become one of the premier choruses of Washington. Scribner retires at the end of this concert season.
Both the Stravinsky (1930) and the Bernstein (1965) are based on psalms, the resemblance ending there. The older work calls for a gigantic assortment of woodwinds (five flutes, for example) and brass, plus strings, two pianos, harp, bass drums and timpani. But the work is a symphony only in the broadest sense. In his liturgical approach (with a Latin text), Stravinsky moves through psalms voicing repentance, faith and joyful praise primarily through repeated motifs, fugues and changing textures. The chorus skillfully captured the music’s focus with powerful contrasts in sonorities and a sense of continuity. Relying on Hebrew texts, Bernstein’s psalm settings are divided into three movements in which the composer interweaves religious reflections, potent hints of Broadway style (“West Side Story” premiered in 1957) and an undercurrent of blues and jazz. The chorus maintained the work’s essential fluidity and mix of styles. Treble Justin Frazier, head chorister of the Washington Cathedral’s boys choir, sang both sweetly and powerfully, easily reaching the last row of listeners.