Cathedral Choral Society Pays Tribute to Lincoln's 200th Birthday

Mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson
Mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson
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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

On Sunday afternoon the Cathedral Choral Society offered a musical tribute to honor the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birthday last month. It did so in grand style, with a rare performance of Paul Hindemith's "When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom'd," a 1946 setting of Walt Whitman's extended poem in reaction to the president's assassination. Conductor J. Reilly Lewis led his vast volunteer chorus in a unified, richly colored performance, strongest at points that required volcanic swells of sound, such as at the end of the seventh movement.

During a few unaccompanied passages, as in the ninth movement ("Death Carol"), the choir's pitch sank, and the orchestra tended to overwhelm them in softer passages. Baritone soloist Christòpheren Nomura sang with an overly fussy approach to consonants but also with stentorian power, preserving the force and beauty of his voice all the way to the work's conclusion. Mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson made even more of an impact with her less prominent solo parts, reflective arioso movements in which her Mahlerian earth-mother voice soared.

Such close proximity to the Hindemith work revealed Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait" for the formulaic schlock it is: campy folk song quotations, some dewy chords and a mishmash of Lincoln snippets and what reads like a dashed-off high school book report. It would have been better just to have Sam Waterston, the éminence grise of televised moral rectitude, recite another Lincoln speech instead. Charles Stanford's "Elegiac Ode" was worth discovering, but Peter Wilhousky's bombastic arrangement of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" sounded like the musical equivalent of purple prose.

-- Charles T. Downey

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