Music Review: Choral Arts Society and Washington Symphonic Brass

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The excitement of a three-ring circus couldn't match the grandeur of Sunday's musical festivities at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Choral Arts Society director Norman Scribner conducted 180 singers in a performance of antiphonal music (two or more independent groups performing together or in alternation). The program ranged from Renaissance and early baroque polychoral (multi-chorus) fare to 20th-century works by Frank Martin, Franz Biebl, Benjamin Britten and John Tavener. The Washington Symphonic Brass and organist William Neil also took part both as accompanists and in solos. For some works on the program, the singers and winds were stationed in groups around the hall, the idea being you heard the music coming at you from all directions simultaneously -- a brand of theater in the round. Although the event was billed as "The Original Surround Sound," that claim is somewhat misleading; antiphonal music actually goes back to the ancient Hebrews, Byzantines and Romans.

The first half of the concert proved underwhelming. Giovanni Gabrieli's well-known motet "In Ecclesiis" is a mammoth work celebrating the glory that was Venice four centuries ago. But Sunday it sounded piecemeal and uncertain. And while the unaccompanied chorus gave a polished account of Frank Martin's lengthy Mass for Double Choir, Scribner couldn't hide the music's exceedingly bland impact. The second half of the program saved the day, peaking with a marvelous version of Biebl's often-heard "Ave Maria" for male chorus and Gabrieli's "Jubilate Deo," the singers' persuasive exuberance augmented by the brilliant colors of the organ and brass.

-- Cecelia Porter

© 2009 The Washington Post Company