Music review

Music review: Robert Shafer and City Choir at Cathedral of St. Thomas More

Robert Shafer
Robert Shafer (Courtesy Of Strathmore - Courtesy Of Strathmore)
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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Robert Shafer offered a tribute to French music with the City Choir of Washington at Arlington's Cathedral of St. Thomas More on Sunday night. More specifically it was a personal homage to his own education with Nadia Boulanger, the legendary muse of so many American musicians. The spartan harmonies of the austere opening work, the "Hymne au Soleil" by Nadia's sister Lili Boulanger, set a serious tone for the evening.

Maurice Duruflé's Requiem Mass was the centerpiece of this concert, rescheduled after being canceled by the record-breaking snows last month. More than any other composer, Duruflé was able to preserve the unmetered flow of Gregorian chant melodies within a modern harmonic and rhythmic context, and the result can be either meditative or soporific, depending on your inclination. The devotion and intensity of the choir's volunteer singers impressed more than the musical quality; the singing was sometimes rough and unfinished in terms of intonation and beauty of phrasing, making for a concert that was mostly enjoyable, if not distinguished.

The best performance came with Francis Poulenc's tender, impassioned "Litanies à la Vierge Noire," a response to his conversion experience at the Shrine of the Black Virgin in Rocamadour. The high soprano sound, reduced to the clearest voices, was admirably pure, a solution that could have benefitted the "Pie Jesu" movement of the Requiem, among other pieces. Poulenc's "Seigneur, je vous en prie" did not show the men's voices in as favorable a light, the first tenors especially going excruciatingly flat. Organist Paul Skevington accompanied the group with an appropriate heft, although being at the console far away in the choir loft, watching Shafer's hands on a video monitor, had to be stressful.

-- Charles T. Downey

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