The Library of Congress has, for decades, been an elegant venue for the best in chamber music but, until now, has not been particularly welcoming to local artists. A new collaboration between the library and the Washington Bach Consort, announced at the ensemble's inaugural concert there on Friday, may signal a nudge in a new direction for both.
It was no surprise that Bach was on the menu: Cantata No. 10, "Meine Seel' Erhebt den Herren" to begin with, its sublimely simple chorale melody shining through several of its movements, and the rollicking fugue from the motet "Singet dem Herren" as an encore. And it was no surprise that J. Reilly Lewis and his forces, 22 singers and a small baroque orchestra, handled these as if born to the idiom. Lewis's singers have the vocal equipment to make Bach's instrumental-like vocal lines sound easy, and he himself is a fine Bach scholar.
What was unexpected was the rest of the music: pieces by nine 20th-century American composers, a repertoire that the baroque specialists of the WBC have not explored before. Lewis chose well for this set of pieces. It opened with Richard W. Dirksen's exquisite "Lo How Soft the Light" for bells and six sopranos, sung with both warmth and purity. David Conte's "Canticle (From the rising of the sun)" may have taken its inspiration from Randall Thompson but his harmonies are all his own, and the textures of the voices over the bell-like piano crescendos built to a powerful climax. In Eric Whitacre's "hope, faith, life, love," quiet individual lines floated above filmy clusters of tones, and in Gwyneth Walker's "The Christ-Child's Lullaby," a folk melody is set in an intriguingly sophisticated structure.
There were also pieces by Elinor Remick Warren, Samuel Barber, Ned Rorem, Norman Dello Joio and Daniel E. Gawthrop, all sung beautifully (although Barber's "Mary Hynes" was slow for my tastes); the soloists, all from the ranks of the consort, were excellent.
-- Joan Reinthaler