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Anonymous 4 and the Cathedral Choral Society

Marian McPartland: Happy birthday, and please let the lady play.
Marian McPartland: Happy birthday, and please let the lady play. (Kennedy Center)

Never did the Washington National Cathedral resound more grandly, sometimes with haunting overtones, than it did during Sunday's evensong service, a lengthy one titled "American Mystics." The rarely heard spiritual songs of an earlier America, performed by Anonymous 4, and the Cathedral Choral Society's 20th-century offerings both reached the cathedral's deepest recesses with reverberations down to the merest whisper.

J. Reilly Lewis conducted the choral music (with a few selections led by Todd Fickley). The vocal quartet, which has entranced audiences around the world with its intriguing repertoire and astounding vocal intensity, alternated with the chorus's handsome anthems. Amid the vocal works, Scott Dettra imaginatively probed the wide-ranging sonic possibilities of the cathedral's magnificent organ.

Anonymous 4 toured the musical past of Northeastern cities and the rural South though folk hymns, revival songs and gospel tunes. Themes of hoped-for deliverance from a hard life and spiritual rapture came across in the quartet's unwavering resonance, perfect intonation and unbridled conviction.

The style of Sunday's choral music relies chiefly on repetition and sustained sound, reflecting a British tradition that has lingered on while Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Elliot Carter and other composers have made quite different waves in contemporary music. Choral highlights from the program included movements from Randall Thompson's exquisitely vocal "The Peaceable Kingdom," Frank Ferko's sonorous "O Gracious Light" (its torrents of recurring sound recalling Wagner's "Rheingold" Prelude) and two vibrant anthems by William K. Trafka and Dan Locklair. Both composers were present for the audience's warm reception.

-- Cecelia Porter

Verdehr Trio

When the time comes, the Verdehr Trio's legacy will be vast -- decades of wonderful performances and, probably more lasting, the commissioning of hundreds of pieces for a violin, clarinet and piano ensemble whose repertoire, until now, has been small.

Three new pieces were introduced at the Verdehr's performance at the Phillips Collection on Sunday: the Washington premiere of Stefan Freund's "Triodances," the world premiere of Gerard Schurmann's four-movement "Partita" and the U.S. premiere of Yinam Leef's "Canaanite Fantasy No. 5." All of these were written within the last three years and all reflect a maturity and a comfort with a contemporary idiom that is as attuned to the needs of the listener as to the imaginings of the composers.

Freund's three-movement dance set is witty, wry, soulful and cheerful. His idiom is tonal and accessible and he uses the syntax bequeathed to him by Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bartok and the rest fluently in ways that are neither self-conscious nor stilted.

Schurmann is a contrapuntist at heart. In the "Partita" his thematic material is crafted to be easily recognized, four-note snippets that leap out at you in all their variety of identities. The concluding "Capriccio" movement, driven brilliantly by pianist Silvia Roederer, violinist Walter Verdehr and his wife, clarinetist Elsa Ludewig-Verdehr, was a triumph of coordination.

Leef's piece was the most adventurous and, in some respects, the most difficult to make sense of. At times there seemed to be a story line hidden in the music's agenda. Moments of blissful repose were interspersed with events fraught with tension and anxiety. Textures and sonorities were always interesting but there seemed to be a lack of direction that made the piece seem longer than it actually was.

Max Bruch's "Nachtgesang" and two happy Slavonic Dances by Dvorak rounded out a brilliantly played program.

-- Joan Reinthaler

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