Cathedral's Stone-Deaf to Fine Performances

By Andrew Lindemann Malone
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, June 25, 2007

Even with the best possible training, preparation and leadership, no musician can defeat the laws of physics. Playing a program of popular American works Friday night, the National Symphony Orchestra and Cathedral Choral Society had to contend with the cavernous spaces of Washington National Cathedral, which hosted the groups as part of its annual Summer Music Festival.

Despite the musicians' best efforts, the marble interior swallowed up some fine playing and singing, especially when the music was loud and fast -- as it is for much of two of Leonard Bernstein's best-loved works, the "Symphonic Dances" from "West Side Story," and "Chichester Psalms."

J. Reilly Lewis, the Cathedral Choral Society's longtime music director, obviously knows his way around the cathedral.

Nevertheless, in the performance of the "Chichester Psalms" that he led, only about a third of the consonants the Choral Society sang were actually audible from where I was sitting, close to the orchestra.

When singing a cappella, the Choral Society made gorgeous sounds, bringing thrilling clarity and beauty to the work's final benediction.

In the jazzy, raucous parts that express sacred joy through secular means, the rhythms came through, but not much else.

Lewis's rendition of Samuel Barber's "Agnus Dei," the choral arrangement of his famous "Adagio for Strings," fared even worse, as the balance problems made it sound like the "Adagio" with an indistinct vocal haze in the background.

NSO Associate Conductor Emil de Cou showed his facility for getting this orchestra to play pop rhythms in the "West Side Story" extracts -- in some passages on Friday, he supplemented a light, precise baton with equally adept lower-body dance moves. The NSO responded with deliciously taut syncopation in the quiet, snaky "Cool" fugue, and tender interplay among the principal strings made the "Meeting" scene touching. But when the percussion and brass erupted, or the orchestra played a series of snappy, quick chords, the sounds blurred and muddied unappealingly as they ascended to the balconies.

The faster sections of Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring" rely less on percussion than the Bernstein works -- a simple harp pluck or piano plunk serves for emphasis. The leaner sound ensured that the dance tunes emerged clean and vigorous under de Cou's leadership, and the cathedral's resonance gave the slower sections an appealing glow.

A suite from Copland's opera "The Tender Land" brought the Choral Society back for a turn under de Cou, and the less complex harmonies projected with clarity, as the choristers filled the nave with stirring versions of Copland's hymns to farm life. These pieces were well suited to the acoustics of the cathedral; more such repertoire would have ensured that the fine efforts of the performers delivered appropriate satisfaction to the audience.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company