Concert review: National Master Chorale at National Presbyterian Church

By Cecelia Porter
Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Washington area is widely recognized as a mecca for outstanding choruses, both large symphonic groups and chamber ensembles. With the National Master Chorale, yet another has entered the scene. Directed by Thomas Colohan, the ensemble gave its second concert on Sunday, a performance remarkable for its beauty and unusual makeup -- vocal music largely off the beaten path. Presented at the National Presbyterian Church, the program was a mix of sacred and secular music focused on the romantic era by German composers Felix Mendelssohn, Josef Rheinberger, Johannes Brahms and Robert Schumann, as well as Austria's Anton Bruckner.

The first half of the afternoon was devoted to unaccompanied performances of Mendelssohn's Psalm 43, two Bruckner selections, Rheinberger's Mass for 8 Voices in E-flat and Brahms's "Oh Savior, Open Wide the Heavens." (Contrary to Colohan's otherwise interesting comments, this Brahms work didn't "recall Bach." Instead, it echoed much earlier German baroque music.) Schumann's "Gypsy's Life" and Brahms's "Gypsy Songs" made up the concert's second half.

There were many reasons for admiring the performance. The singers' rapt responsiveness to Colohan's flowing gestures accounted for many of the program's strengths, such as finely nuanced timbres adjusted to the meaning and emotion of each setting, whether charged with ecstasy or more tranquil in tone. Balance was handled carefully amid a constant stream of changing textures, most strikingly in the polychoral density of the Rheinberger. Only in the first Brahms did the composer's characteristic nightmare of cross-rhythms befuddle the chorus.

The sanctuary offered perfect acoustics for the 80-member group. Its German texts sounded like German, though the Latin was sometimes mushy. Pianist Mark Vogel brought a full measure of robust accompaniment to the Schumann and final Brahms.

Porter is a freelance writer.

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