Thursday, November 17, 2005

Master Chorale of Washington

Anew setting often enhances a piece of music. On Tuesday evening at the Library of Congress, the Master Chorale of Washington reframed the "Holocaust Cantata," a creation of its musical director, Donald McCullough. The intelligently delivered program, which began with a short film and interspersed narratives within the original choral piece, deepened the cantata's expression at every turn.

The Washington premiere of the library's Veterans History Project documentary "I'm Really Doing Some Good Here" served as a kind of overture, setting the mood with first-person accounts of American soldiers who liberated Nazi concentration camps. After the film's closing credits, McCullough gently lifted out the lonely initial musical phrases of his 1998 work. Melancholic themes from the cello of Joshua Kowalsky merged with the warm blending of the chorus and the detailed piano accompaniment of David Lang.

McCullough bases the tunes and texts of the six movements on prisoner songs found in the Kulisiewicz music archive of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, translated into English and poetry by Marcin Zmudzki and Denny Clark, respectively.

Even with the precision and ensemble of the chorus, as well as the beautiful solos from baritone Steven Combs, soprano Angela Powell and mezzo-soprano Sylvia Twine, the music sometimes lacked variety. The spoken narratives -- also actual stories from the camps -- had a welcome effect, providing time to reflect on the preceding music. Closing out the well-rounded, if sparsely attended, concert was a glowing account of McCullough's lyrical "We Remember Them."

-- Daniel Ginsberg

'Nostra Aetate' Celebration

On Monday evening, the Basilica of the National Shrine hosted a concert to celebrate the 40th anniversary of "Nostra Aetate" -- Pope Paul VI's declaration on interfaith relations -- with a program of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and the world premiere of Richard Danielpour's "Washington Speaks" (commissioned by the Knights of Columbus).

If I say that Gilbert Levine "appeared" to conduct the Orchestra of St. Luke's and the Morgan State University Choir in a cogent reading of the Beethoven, that's because the basilica's acoustics reduced the performance to incoherence. (The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, originally scheduled for the concert, was replaced a few weeks back by the presenters.) From a 10th-row vantage point, the direct sound from the orchestra was gutless and vague, while the roaring sonic ricochet behind the audience gave the impression of a second orchestra playing the score a couple of moments out of sync. The scherzo was reduced to a comical jumble of mistimed cannon volleys, and the "Ode to Joy" (here, little more than indecipherable noise) became an ode to anarchy.

The simpler musical language of "Washington Speaks" at least flirted with acoustic intelligibility. If this is yet another knockoff of Copland's "Lincoln Portrait," its noble trumpet calls and carillon bells, its sea of ecstatically hushed strings, and its feel-good tonality (ruffled only by an occasional burst of Ivesian dissonance) could be crowd-pleasing in a more music-friendly venue. George Washington's words -- reaffirming individual choice in matters of belief -- were given an authoritative (and, thankfully, clearly miked) delivery by Ted Koppel.

-- Joe Banno

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