From City Choir of Washington, triumph out of tragedy

By Cecelia H. Porter
Tuesday, March 1, 2011

In just a few seasons, artistic director Robert Shafer has shaped the City Choir of Washington into another of the area's first-class choruses. At Sunday's National Presbyterian Church concert - for which the ensemble was joined by the Rock Creek Singers of the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, D.C. - the group's power of expression took center stage, capturing one work's overwhelming sense of tragedy and the sheer exuberance of another with equal ease.

"This Mourning," composed by Joel Puckett to mark the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, is a work for chorus, orchestra, tenor and 40 wine glasses, whose vibrations provide an eerie conclusion to the mayhem depicted by the singers and instrumentalists. The work is an overpowering re-creation of the scene's horror and pandemonium. The chorus quietly mouths emotionally charged lines from Emily Dickinson's poetry, their words clashing against throbbing drum tremolos and the string orchestra's charging bows. Some uncertain moments among the performers - possibly accentuated by the sanctuary's acoustics - detracted little from the gripping score. Michael Forest was the work's excellent soloist.

Haydn's glorious if taxing "Mass in the Time of War" reflects conflict of another kind, its orchestra sound punctuated by the military aura of trumpet and timpani. Shafer drew conviction and drive from his singers, their occasionally imprecise Latin diction notwithstanding, and the four soloists were well matched.

To open the concert, William Neil gave a powerful account of J.S. Bach's "Fantasia" and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542, on the church's magnificent Aeolian-Skinner organ.

Porter is a freelance writer.

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