Music review: ‘Russian Riches’ from the Cathedral Choral Society

May 16, 2011

In its Sunday program at the Washington National Cathedral — tagged “Russian Riches,” yet consisting of perennially undervalued repertoire — the Cathedral Choral Society left its audience suspended somewhere between heaven and Earth. This would seem an unlikely outcome, but in programming works by Rimsky-Korsakov, Sergei Taneyev and Alexander Gretchaninov, music director J. Reilly Lewis utilized a full orchestral and choral palette not normally associated with Russian sacred music, which is traditionally performed by voices only.

A case study in solid orchestration, Rimsky-Korsakov’s opening “Easter Festival Overture” switched moods constantly. The work laid out a series of challenges for the orchestra, which, apart from minor rhythmic discrepancies between violins and brass on faster passages, turned in a lithe if not elegant reading.

Taneyev’s 1884 cantata “John of Damascus” seems strangely cinematic, despite predating Eisenstein by decades. At its heart, however, is the text, a plaintive journey toward the Eschaton — the finalization of the divine plan, but realized from the hopeful perspective of the Eastern Church. The transcendence was in the singing. The choir displayed the requisite prowess, from the perfectly intoned chorale passages, distant and otherworldly, to a demanding fugue that was written much like those by Brahms, only in Cyrillic.

Gretchaninov’s cantata “Hvalite Boga” premiered two years after Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and two prior to the Russian Revolution. A triumphant procession of praise, this work demands both the stamina and the sensibility to convey a constancy oblivious to the times. Lewis’s singers and those of the National Cathedral School Chorale were iconic in their rendering, notably in the perilously exposed triad sections for upper voices. Interplay between orchestra and choirs was seamless, and the overall bravura of the singers was the stuff of which memorable concerts are made.

Thigpen is a freelance writer.

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