Music Review: Anne Midgette on Master Chorale's Finale, With 'Carmina Burana'

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 19, 2009

As a culture, we tend not to give endings their proper due. The radio host Robert Aubry Davis, introducing the Master Chorale, observed this from the Kennedy Center Concert Hall stage on Sunday afternoon. Death, goodbyes, conclusions are too often rushed, dismissed, hidden. So the Master Chorale's concert Sunday was a kind of music-thanatology: the branch of music devoted to adding beauty and significance to the act of death. For the concert marked the chorale's last-ever performance.

There have been a lot of closings in recent months as the recession exacts its toll on arts organizations across the country. But these closings tend to happen away from the stage, between performances. Seldom do organizations have the luxury of an actual farewell: a final concert that everyone knows is its last.

The Master Chorale announced its closing in March. It was running a deficit, and its financial reserves had been badly hit by the economic crisis. The only one of Washington's major choruses to include a core of paid professionals, it might have found the cost of paying for those singers too high. Perhaps the end was unavoidable. Certainly by voluntarily closing, the group avoided the hassle of declaring bankruptcy. Instead, on Sunday, it got to go out to a standing ovation.

When Donald McCullough, the chorus's director, selected the season's final program, he probably didn't know it was going to be a true finale. On the first half was Randall Thompson's "Frostiana," seven poems by Robert Frost in settings as pretty and straightforward and unvarnished and innocuous as the poems themselves. Thompson aims to please; he finds a meter and rhythm, and lulls the words along in it, couching them in soft cushions of vocal sound, obediently adding illustrative touches exactly when called for: a flute taking the part of a thrush, a beaten triangle mimicking a ringing telephone, or simply a key phrase given a gentle musical underline. It's inoffensive and unmemorable music, but perhaps struck the right tone of all-American nostalgia, a look back at a kinder, gentler era.

Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" is backward-looking, too, in that it sets medieval texts found in a German monastery. Yet it's also feisty and life-affirming. Orff captures the archaic quality of the poetry in clean, driving rhythms. The voices are sometimes raucous, sometimes funny, sometimes terrifying: The pounding "O Fortuna," however overfamiliar and overused in countless soundtracks and TV ads, never loses its force.

The Master Chorale assembled some fine soloists. The soprano Lisa Eden was a little hard-edged, but Robert Baker, fresh off his assignment as the Emperor in "Turandot" the night before, had a lot of fun with the unmercifully high role of the cooked swan. And Steven Combs, a late replacement for a colleague, was tremendously appealing; his tenorial timbre and honesty of approach compensated for a lack of vocal focus that sometimes made it hard to hear him over the orchestra. The Children's Chorus of Washington was clarion and focused from the balconies.

Music is about continuity. Performances are reduced, in the newspaper, to a sequence of isolated events: This was good, this wasn't good, buy your tickets now. But this is only a pale reflection of the way people actually experience music -- particularly in top-flight amateur choruses, which represent an entire community investing effort and energy over a sustained period of time. Reviews mark points on this time line: At this moment, the group sounded this way. But on Sunday, the crisp, careful diction of the chorus, the slightly over-cautious clarity coupled with perfect enunciation, were not things to be pointed out for later but mementos of an institution that was about to vanish. The group ushered in its own ending with a soft setting of a sentimental poem by Denny Clark about music's power to move, and then fell silent, though some of its members touched away tears during the long applause.

There are only about 32 choruses in the country with annual operating budgets of more than $1 million. Until Sunday, four of them were in Washington. Now, three remain: the Choral Arts Society, the Washington Chorus and the Cathedral Choral Society. Washington is not going to starve for choral music in the near future. But the landscape is continuing to change, and a piece of local history has gone.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company