Music review: Washington Chorus features Elena Ruehr in its ‘New Music’ series

Washington’s choral scene has long been dominated by big symphonic choruses presenting the great choral masterworks of the classical canon: the Verdi Requiem, Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.” Yet choral music is one of the more active scenes for contemporary composers.

So it’s at once laudable, realistic and overdue that Julian Wachner and the Washington Chorus have written contemporary music firmly into their season. On Sunday afternoon at the National Presbyterian Church, the group offered the third installment of its series “New Music for a New Age,” an annual concert devoted to the music of a living composer — here, the 47-year-old American Elena Ruehr.

For Wachner to offer this kind of program is hardly a stretch: He is a choral composer as well as a conductor. The program wasn’t much of a stretch for a choral audience either. Ruehr’s music, rather than being off-putting in the ways that some audiences fear when they hear the term “new music,” is melodic and luxuriant, bathing in the springy rich sound that massed voices create on the ear and studded with quotes from past composers, from Debussy to Mahler to Beethoven.

Ruehr also has good taste in texts. The first of the program’s three works (presented with lots of chat between Wachner and Ruehr about their genesis), “Cricket, Spider, Bee,” wove together three Emily Dickinson poems in big pillows of sound stitched together by forward-impelled rhythms (particularly in the description of the spider making his web). The second, “Gospel Cha-Cha,” was clearly a calling card: a setting of a Langston Hughes poem written in a kind of call-and-response form for Stephen Salters’s warm mahogany baritone and the chorus, interspersed with solo meditations for the winds and touched with the whiskery caressing sounds of maracas.

The third piece, “Averno,” was the main event and a world premiere: a long, serious setting of 11 inspired poems from Louise Gluck’s book of the same name, dealing with man’s relationship to nature in a sequence of half-metaphors (one poem’s subject was the obliviousness of a burned field that regenerates the next year without regard to the farmer whose work was destroyed in the fire).

Yet for all her sensitivity to good text, Ruehr has an odd way of setting it. “Averno,” especially, rushed through the words, with the music’s moods less enhancing them than existing in a kind of counterpoint: Words that seemed bleak on the page were presented as lushly verdant.

And communicating all of those words was a bit of a stretch for the chorus. The group did an impressive job presenting a lot of unfamiliar music, and the first two pieces in particular were schooled very well. But at times, especially in “Averno,” the performance succumbed to the uniformity of phrasing and dynamics that often happens when a group is faced with unfamiliar music (the newness was even reflected in Salters’s slightly less steady delivery). And the words, most of the time, were submerged in the cushiony sound, so that had there been no printed text, the meaning would have been hard to follow.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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