Elizabeth Futral brought expressive urgency to
Elizabeth Futral brought expressive urgency to "Evensong" on Sunday, while Peter Phillips led the Tallis Scholars in a Spanish and Portuguese program. (Neil Funkhouser Artist Management)
  Enlarge Photo    
Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Cathedral Choral Society

No one familiar with Dominick Argento's neo-romantic operas would have been surprised by the warmth and melodic accessibility of his latest liturgical composition, "Evensong: Of Love and Angels," given its world premiere by the Cathedral Choral Society on Sunday. Indeed, the work's centerpiece, "Sermon" -- set to a moving text by the composer himself, and sung with gleaming tone and expressive urgency by soprano Elizabeth Futral -- is an aria that could fit comfortably into a half-dozen of Argento's stage works.

What catches the ear most in "Evensong" is the way the octogenarian composer marries his accustomed American brand of lyricism with the British choral tradition, bringing Britten and Vaughan Williams occasionally to mind, and incorporating that fixture of Anglican church services, a boy soprano (Nelson James LePard Reed notably pure-voiced and eloquent here), significantly into the score. J. Reilly Lewis conducted a beautifully prepared, richly communicative performance, and -- following an uncharacteristically murky, soft-centered reading of Mozart's Vesperae Solennes de Confessore, K. 339, earlier in the program -- the chorus and orchestra were in superb form.

If "Evensong" is consistently elegiac in tone, the composer's facility with orchestral color only fleetingly given free rein, that's understandable: The piece was written not only to commemorate Washington National Cathedral's 100th anniversary, but also in memory of Argento's wife, Carolyn, who succumbed to a prolonged illness in 2006. It's hard to imagine a lovelier or more heartfelt memorial.

-- Joe Banno

The Tallis Scholars

The Tallis Scholars, well into their fourth decade of pristine performances of the Renaissance repertoire, brought a program of music of 16th- and 17th-century Spain and Portugal to the University of Maryland's Smith Center on Sunday.

This was all music untouched by any hint of the nationalistic folk influences that make the villancicos of the period or the wonderful Portuguese cantigas of an earlier age such fun. The aura it projects is one of serenity. It doesn't set out to dramatize the texts but simply to illuminate them.

The 12-voice Tallis ensemble captured this spirit wonderfully. Led by its founder Peter Phillips, they sang motets by Mendes, Cardoso, Lobo and Melgas (all composers associated with the medieval Cathedral of Evora near Lisbon) with close attention to balance and within a very small dynamic range. In this context the modest chromaticisms in Melgas's "Adjuva Nos" and the cross-relations in Cardoso's setting of the "Magnificat" sounded almost bold.

The evening's big work was Victoria's Requiem setting, a Tallis specialty, presented complete with the introductory Matins lesson and the funeral motet "Versa Est" as Victoria intended. This is music with wings and was sung with such calm conviction that it barely touched the ground -- even though Phillips had his exemplary bass, Robert McDonald, anchoring most of the cadences an octave down. It was Victoria's last big work and clearly that of a man at peace with himself.

-- Joan Reinthaler

© 2008 The Washington Post Company