Correction to This Article
A Nov. 22 Style review of a Washington Chorus performance gave the wrong name of a soloist in "This Mourning." The singer was Michael Forest, not Kevin Deas.

Chorus to Conductor: Hosanna in Excelsis

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Conductor Robert Shafer, who was recently forced out of his 35-year tenure as music director of the Washington Chorus, certainly chose to leave on an impressive note.

The group's Sunday afternoon concert at the Kennedy Center featured not only some of the most stirring and committed choral singing I've heard in Washington since the death of Robert Shaw but one of the only performances of Mozart's "Requiem" that has ever had me pretty much convinced from start to finish.

Legend has it that Mozart was found dead immediately after inking in the words "homo reus" in the "Lacrymosa" movement (which would have been a glorious farewell), about two thirds of the way through the "Requiem." Certainly, he never completed the score and it was left to one of his students, Franz Xaver Sussmayr, to finish up. And so, in the opinion of many listeners, there is a big drop in quality from what is purely Mozart to what is Mozart-Sussmayr -- the "Sanctus," with its egregious Jerry Lee Lewis-style hammered chords, is particularly galling.

And yet Shafer led a performance of such emotional intensity, informed by such long experience, such steady and irrefutable musical logic, that even the weaker moments of the hybrid score came across as almost inevitable. Shafer's forces, some of whom are known to be very unhappy about his dismissal, seemed determined to make a statement, and they did -- those magisterial rolled R's in "Rex tremendae"! Even the orchestra, traditionally the weakest link in Washington Chorus performances, sounded alert and balanced. All four vocal soloists -- soprano Laura Lewis, mezzo-soprano Karyn Friedman, tenor Michael Forest and baritone Kevin Deas -- blended well together, with special compliments to Lewis for the mixture of haunted pathos and tender succor she brought to her solos.

The program included a world premiere commissioned by the Washington Chorus. "This Mourning," a three-movement setting of verse by Emily Dickinson and Thomas Bailey Aldrich by the gifted young composer Joel Puckett, is dedicated to the memory of those killed in the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. I find it difficult to contemplate that day without also thinking of the World Trade Center and United Flight 93 (not to mention the slaughter in Iraq) but that's all right, for any true elegy ultimately becomes universal.

On a first hearing, "This Mourning" seemed a serious, appropriately respectful and often eerily beautiful tribute. It was at its weakest when trying to re-create the day's horror; the crashing sounds from the orchestra in the first movement were a misstep -- a necessarily inadequate evocation. Moreover, Aldrich's "A Great Man's Death" (about Abraham Lincoln) strikes me as the worst sort of platitudinous poetastery and it served to weigh down Puckett's muse. But the luscious close, with the ethereal sound of rubbed crystal glasses standing out against the lowing chorus and orchestra, lingers in the memory. Deas sang his solo part with the dignity and authority of an unusually dapper prophet.

The program began with a short, achingly lovely and all but unknown work by Beethoven, "Elegischer Gesang," Op. 118. Whoever becomes music director of the Washington Chorus will have much to build on, and much to live up to.

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