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-- Cecelia Porter
Choral Arts Society
The Choral Arts Society of Washington performed a welcome act of musical resurrection at its Sunday afternoon Kennedy Center concert, programming a large-scale vocal work of the largely forgotten composer Amy Beach. The performance of her "Canticle of the Sun," Op. 123, was thoroughly prepared and thoughtfully delivered, if not always engaging.
The problem was not the texts of the 1930 work, which draw from the powerful devotional poem of Saint Francis of Assisi and conjure cinematic images of God reflected in nature's grandeur. Nor was vocal writing a hindrance. This artist from New England, a prolific songwriter in her day, possessed an idiomatic sense of the rise and fall of the English language, along with a keen ability to spin a floating vocal line.
Summoned to their best were the musicians -- the orchestra that put Beach's dense writing in high relief, the singers who brought great commitment to their parts. Tenor Robert Baker, soprano Elizabeth Keusch, mezzo-soprano Linda Maguire and bass James Shaffran infused their affecting solos with precision and power. The chorus sang with blended warmth and tight ensemble in both the climactic busy sequences and, more rarely, the more poignant sustained passages.
The issue was ultimately a matter of Beach's sensibility, which in this piece comes off as Victorian and bombastic. She seems to lack patience to let the music develop, reaching quickly for the grand outburst. Heavy-handed orchestration added to the overbearing atmosphere.
At the start, the society's director, Norman Scribner, elicited more noble symmetries out of Bach's cantata "God, the Lord, is sun and shield," BWV 79, albeit with some intonation slips and ragged entries from the orchestra. Francis Poulenc's "Stabat Mater" turned out the true find in the end. Scribner pointed up the seemingly limitless supply of drama in this propulsive, 12-movement masterwork, while the rapturous singing of Keusch brought a more sensuous and enveloping tenderness.
-- Daniel Ginsberg
Washington Men's Camerata
Washington Men's Camerata Music Director Frank Albinder is certainly game for a challenge. In the program "Northern Lights," presented on Sunday afternoon at the Church of the Epiphany, he took his 50-some amateur singers to the remote musical terrain of Scandinavia. Performing works that encompassed seven different languages and diverse musical styles, this was an ambitious trip.
The heart of the program was contemporary Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara's "Elaman Kirja" ("A Book of Life"), an 11-movement work for unaccompanied male ensemble, featuring texts by poets ranging from Rainer Maria Rilke to Dag Hammarskjold.
Written in 1972 for the Helsinki University Male Voice Choir, this journey through life is eclectically rendered in music sometimes vaguely impressionistic, sometimes mystical and chantlike, sometimes rhythmically driving and percussive. The Camerata bravely forded these waters, facing the difficulties of ambiguous tonality, densely overlapping phrases and foreign diction with varying degrees of success.
A better and more comfortable fit for the ensemble were less challenging but quite engaging works from Edvard Grieg's "Album for Male Voices," Hugo Alfven's drop-dead gorgeous "Aftonen," the rousing chorale from Sibelius's "Finlandia" and a hilarious nonsense song by Jaako Mantyjarvi, "Pseudo-Yoik NT," performed with irreverent glee and timbral playfulness.
One wished that the Camerata had held onto the same confidence, boisterousness and sheer delight in playing with sound in the Rautavaara as well. But Albinder is nonetheless to be commended for throwing down the gauntlet and for bringing underperformed and worthy repertoire to American audiences.
-- Sarah Hoover