Master Chorale of Washington at National Presbyterian Church

Monday, February 23, 2009; 6:02 PM

Master Chorale of Washington presented a fine program of American a cappella music on Sunday afternoon at National Presbyterian Church. The reduced roster of 40-some singers, about a third of the full membership, produced the clean, balanced sound of an excellent and disciplined collegiate chorale, with especially the sopranos and tenors tending toward jejune paleness. This is hardly surprising, given the predominance of well-scrubbed, young faces on the risers, mostly the youngest members of Donald McCullough's group, about half of them on the payroll, and a handful of veterans.

The open, resonant space carried this bright sound admirably, and the group's unified but not overemphasized approach to consonants made the texts clear. The often complex harmonies were carefully tuned and voiced, although the group did best with the prettier music on the program, much of it near and dear to collegiate chorales, such as Daniel Gawthrop's sugary "Sing Me to Heaven." Edwin Fissinger's substantial setting of the communion from the Latin Requiem Mass, "Lux Aeterna," featured an angelic, boyish solo from soprano Evelyn Boesenberg, bending slightly out of tune only on the highest passages. Two works by a promising younger composer, Eric Whitacre, provided more of the same, gentle and undulating massaging of shimmering dissonance resolving to more or less traditional harmony.

Aaron Copland's four motets, composed when he was a 20-something student of Nadia Boulanger's in Paris, provided the most musical interest, but the daring chromaticism caused some woeful intonation problems. Copland's setting of the biblical account of creation, "In the Beginning," was more solid, although the solo contribution of mezzo-soprano Shelley Waite, more full-bodied and varied in tonal color, did not really fit with the choral sound. The program, which stretched to 90 minutes without intermission, was one or two pieces too long for comfort in the pews, and Jackson Berkey's repetitive tribute to Saint Cecilia, "Arma Lucis," was the straw that broke the reviewer's back.

-- Charles T. Downey

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