CLASSICAL MUSIC

Janice Chandler-Eteme (shown in 2005) soloed with the gospel choir.
Janice Chandler-Eteme (shown in 2005) soloed with the gospel choir. (Rich Lipski - Twp)
Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Men and Women of The Gospel Mass Choir

If there are angels in heaven, surely on Sunday they heard praises rising from the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall. The Washington Performing Arts Society's Men and Women of the Gospel Mass Choir was in the house, and it would have been impossible to hear anything else.

WPAS has self-produced 16 gospel concerts since the choir debuted in 1991. That's a worthy calling, but there are inherent problems with presenting church music in a concert setting -- and those difficulties came to a head in this performance, in which the WPAS choir joined the Heritage Signature Chorale and musicians from the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra to present Adolphus Hailstork's gospel oratorio "Done Made My Vow." Rather than attempting to balance the soloists and opposing forces, a poor decision was made to mike everyone onstage. The resulting music was devoid of subtleties and so loud that soprano soloist Janice Chandler-Eteme covered her ears during the final crescendo, a sure sign of amplification gone awry.

At its best, Hailstork's choral music revives gospel singing with intricate rhythms and a fuller Slavic sound. "Done Made My Vow," written in 1985 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Norfolk State University, may not be his strongest work, but when performed well, the oratorio presents a compelling combination of operatic gospel music and civil rights-era narration. Sunday's performance was clearly sub-par. With only 30 male singers, the 200-voice choir lacked the deep resonance associated with spirituals. Adding to the discordant aura of the concert, an inordinate number of people were seated after the music began. Perhaps a church usher would have mercy, but at the Kennedy Center, these latecomers should have been kept listening by the doors until intermission.

The second half of the concert, a series of gospel hymns accompanied by a bluesy jazz band, was more in keeping with a worship service than a performance, complete with soulful soloists and speakers moving in the spirit.

-- Rebecca J. Ritzel

Helsingborg Symphony

At the Helsingborg Symphony's concert at George Mason University on Sunday, early-music conductor Andrew Manze turned what could have been a dry lecture-demonstration about the genesis of Beethoven's "Eroica" into an engaging event. His premise -- that the musical innovations and utopian vision in this work caused an " 'Eroica' effect" in 1805 that revolutionized European music -- might come off as a bit too sweeping and subjective under detailed scrutiny. But the zeal of his delivery and the music he chose to illustrate his thinking had a persuasive effect.

In a style that was part absent-minded professor, part charming raconteur, Manze theorized about Beethoven's early years in Vienna in the 1790s and conducted music that might have influenced the "Eroica" (Mozart's chiseled, Apollonian overture to "The Magic Flute" and the harmonically adventurous opening to Haydn's "Creation"), music influenced by the "Eroica" (a bustling, melodramatic symphony by Joseph Eybler), and music by Beethoven containing ideas that found their way into the "Eroica" (the military song "Kriegslied" and a contredanse that was recycled into the symphony's finale).

The Helsingborg musicians dug into the music with crisp attack, rounded tone and superb ensemble, and Manze found an ideal balance between historically informed style (vibrato-less string-playing, prominent brass) and modern-instrument heft and amplitude. Their performance of the "Eroica" itself was lithe and splendidly energized.

-- Joe Banno


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