Music review

Anne Midgette reviews National Master Chorale's debut at National Presbyterian

IN THE MIX: Thomas Colohan's National Master Chorale performed Lauridsen, Copland, Poulenc and others on Sunday.
IN THE MIX: Thomas Colohan's National Master Chorale performed Lauridsen, Copland, Poulenc and others on Sunday. (Joshua O. Hill)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Winter into spring, the phoenix rising from the ashes, the idea of new life coming from something that appears dead. This was the theme of the inaugural program of the National Master Chorale, Washington's newest chorus, at the National Presbyterian Church on Sunday night. However, the past wasn't even mentioned. The figurative "winter" was brought about by the folding of the Master Chorale last spring; but on paper, and in the extensive comments to the audience from the chorus's director, Thomas Colohan, this chorus appeared to be a whole new venture.

Indeed, it doesn't have much in common with the Master Chorale, which was a large, mainly amateur symphonic chorus devoted mainly to large-scale choral works. The new National Master Chorale is smaller, semiprofessional (which cuts down on the need for rehearsal time), and plans to contrast solo vocal music with chorale works -- juxtaposing, for instance, Morten Lauridsen's song cyle "A Winter Come" with his choral cycle "Mid-Winter Songs" on Sunday's program (with the composer in attendance).

This kind of contrast is just one of a veritable laundry list of aims Colohan outlined, along with an Oscar-worthy speech of thanks to everyone who helped launch this maiden outing. It was a lot of talk, and a lot of ambition, to place on one rather slender concert. But the real test came when the actual singing began and the taut vocal lines extended like a golden cat's cradle of sound, lines interwoven and suspended one above the other in the nave. The presentation may be a work in progress, but the chorus itself is awfully good.

The Lauridsen pieces were the centerpiece and anchor of a program that for the rest followed its theme in small snatches of music by a lot of different composers. They were of a piece with their setting: contemporary, but recognizably traditional; and they showed Lauridsen, at least in this juxtaposition, to be more at home in the choral idiom than as a composer of art songs.

The songs of "A Winter Come," performed by Melissa Coombs and the pianist Mark Vogel, tended to strike and hold a pose, sometimes slightly at odds with the poetry by Howard Moss (for instance, a rapid stream of notes like racing water in a poem that was about water freezing into ice). The choral pieces, by contrast -- settings of poems by Robert Graves -- allowed Lauridsen to explore dimension and texture and create a kind of seductive sound that appears to be a signal strength, and has helped make him possibly the most-performed living American composer.

The chorus still needs to refine its focus. The idea of comparing different kinds of works by a single composer has potential; but in practice, the resonant interior of the church was a challenging environment for art song, though it worked better for an aria from Copland's "The Tender Land" sung by Evelyn Boesenberg, and generally well for the chorus.

It also remained open to question whether the winter/spring theme was enough to link the potpourri of different styles and flavors of music. There were some lovely moments in the mix: "En Soir de Neige," two Poulenc settings sung by a handful of voices, offered two beautiful miniature winter landscapes, like Bruegel paintings. Excerpts from Adolphus Hailstork's "Seven Songs of the Rubaiyat" showed off the chorus's beautiful balances, the basses dark under the sustained hum of the womens' voices, underlining the fact that however the new chorus progresses, it makes a sound worth hearing.

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