Choral Arts Society's 40th, Marked on a High Note

Choral Arts founder Norman Scribner got a Peabody Conservatory alumni award from Peter Landgren at Sunday's concert; Samuel Ramey and Kelley Nassief, top right, and conductor Linda Edge Gatling took part.
Choral Arts founder Norman Scribner got a Peabody Conservatory alumni award from Peter Landgren at Sunday's concert; Samuel Ramey and Kelley Nassief, top right, and conductor Linda Edge Gatling took part. (Photos By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Choral Arts Society of Washington's Sunday afternoon concert at the Kennedy Center was like a big happy family reunion, celebrating not only the troupe's 40th anniversary but the 70th birthday of its founder, Norman Scribner.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams declared Sunday "Norman Scribner Day." First lady Laura Bush sent greetings, as did National Symphony Orchestra music director emeritus Mstislav Rostropovich. And all members of the Choral Arts Society, past and present, were invited to raise their voices in a concluding rendition of Handel's "Hallelujah!" (most of the rest of the hall joined in, too).

Scribner came to town in 1960 as both director of music at St. Alban's Episcopal Church and assistant organist at Washington National Cathedral. In 1965 the NSO's music director at the time, Howard Mitchell, asked Scribner to assemble a chorus for the orchestra's annual holiday performances of Handel's "Messiah." "The response was overwhelming," Scribner later wrote, "with nearly 500 eager choristers auditioning, enabling me to select a first-class chorus of approximately 120 voices. It was the excitement generated by that experience that caused the spontaneous desire to remain intact as a group."

So here we were, four decades later, as Scribner led his current ensemble through the world premiere of a bright, attractive new work by John Pickard ("Choral Fanfare for an Anniversary") and Giuseppe Verdi's fervent and operative "Te Deum." The Choral Arts Society has its own orchestra now, but there were some NSO favorites playing in the group on Saturday, including Elisabeth Adkins as concertmaster and Fred Begun on timpani.

Scribner shared podium duties with three colleagues, including the fine Boston-based conductor Dante Anzolini and the Choral Arts Society's associate conductor and pianist Joseph Holt, who presided over such a dynamic and crisply articulated rendition of the first movement of Leonard Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms" that I wished we were hearing the whole thing. Linda Edge Gatling led an exhilarating performance of a spiritual, "Soon Ah Will Be Done," that grew from a sibilant whisper to an exuberant shout.

Guest soprano Kelley Nassief sang the "Song to the Moon" from Dvorak's "Rusalka" with such warmth, lyricism and tonal luxury that she made one wonder why this aria isn't every bit as famous as "O mio babbino caro" or that fruited duet from "Lakme" that has recently made it into an airline commercial. Mark "Moon" down for the great surprise operatic hit of 2010. Bass Samuel Ramey brought his patented lithe, dark, sinuous splendor to arias from Gounod's "Faust" and Verdi's "Simon Boccanegra."

There were some disappointments along the way. For some reason, the orchestra was amplified in two Broadway selections and, in one of them -- "So in Love" from Cole Porter's "Kiss Me Kate" -- Ramey and Nassief were all but drowned out by the trap drums, which is not an easy accomplishment. And I thought that the afternoon's master of ceremonies, Marta Casals Istomin, was somewhat overexposed. She is a charming person and a figure of no small importance in Washington musical life (she was artistic director of the Kennedy Center for many years) but much of what she said in her many appearances between selections seemed platitudinous and less celebratory than promotional.

Not many artistic organizations make it to their 10th birthday, let alone their 40th. By now, Norman Scribner has conducted thousands of people in the great choral literature. In a society so splintered and individualized as ours has become, working with friends and neighbors to master the intricacies of a complicated work is not only superb musical training but a welcome reaffirmation of shared humanity. No wonder so many came out to sing "Hallelujah!" on Sunday.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company