From Master Chorale, a 'Journey' With Walt Whitman

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 25, 2006

No American poet has provided more inspiration to composers than Walt Whitman. His verse has been the basis for distinguished pieces by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Frederick Delius, Paul Hindemith, Gustav Holst and Ned Rorem, among many others. Indeed, it is probable that only Shakespeare and the authors of the Bible have had their words so steadily and successfully transfigured into music.

The latest such setting to come along is "Whitman's Journey," a work for baritone, chorus and orchestra by Virginia-based composer Adolphus Hailstork, which received its world premiere Sunday afternoon at the Kennedy Center. Donald McCullough conducted the Master Chorale of Washington, which commissioned the hour-long score.

Hailstork is an eloquent traditionalist. He knows and respects the capacities of the human voice, and writes well and surely for them. Hailstork's harmonic language is generally consonant; he places his emphasis on melody and expression rather than experiment and exploration. He is less interested in creating avant-garde manifestos than in fashioning good, honest work for practical use by choruses. Certainly, the Master Chorale seemed to be enjoying itself on Sunday, and its performance was sensitive, scrupulous and heartfelt.

One was reminded, in passing, of the "Americana" works by Aaron Copland, the British choral music tradition (Hailstork even sets some of the same words Vaughan Williams adapted for his "Sea Symphony"), and numerous ceremonial and commemorative pieces created to mark important occasions. To this, Hailstork adds his own aesthetic, with flashes of jazz and references to the long, noble tradition of the African American spiritual. Indeed, "Whitman's Journey" is essentially a devotional work and would sound just as appropriate in a church as it did in the concert hall.

Lester Lynch proved a splendid soloist -- a big, booming baritone with spot-on enunciation, surety of pitch and surprisingly sweet high notes. McCullough was also impressive, holding the big and complicated work together, keeping everything moving but never sounding rushed.

The first half of the program was devoted to works by Copland -- five hearty choral selections from the two cycles of "Old American Songs" and the familiar "Fanfare for the Common Man." This last began the program with a bang -- better make that a BANG! -- from timpani and bass drum that woke up a sleeping baby and inspired some lusty bawling. McCullough stopped the orchestra, excused mother and child, and started over again, all with remarkable good humor. I'm not sure that I wouldn't cry myself if such a gigantic noise surprised me out of deep sleep; in any event, the baby returned later in the concert and not a further peep was heard.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company