Tuesday night Norman Scribner led his Choral Arts Society, members of the National Symphony, and soloists Phyllis Bryn Julson and William Parker in "A Sea Symphony" by Vaughan Williams. With wonderful undergirding from Reilly Lewis on the Kennedy Center Concert Hall organ, it was a performance of unending beauties in sound and feeling.
No poetry is more Whitmanesque - "O, my brave Soul! O, farther, farther sail! Are they not all the seas of God?" - and Vaughan Williams wrote his music in his most impressionable mood. His surges match those of the poet as his soloists and choral singers repeat the swelling lines. The orchestral beauty, in myriad colors, was played with luster, while the chorus tirelessly and effortlessly rode the largest line.
Bryn-Julson's voice is glorious in this music, unerringly projecting its broadest thoughts and, rewardingly, its most intimate moments. Parker has never sounded handsomer in voice or purpose in his handling of the taxing baritone lines.
At the end, Scribner, who had the entire score thoroughly in mind, let the final injunction die away as if to suggest one last time the infinity of the poems and the music. It was spellbinding.
Vaughan Williams was preceded by Benjamin Briten's Nocturne for tenor, strings and seven solo instruments. Gene Tucker did some movingly lovely singing and the playing was full of radiant sound. The piece itself tends to fall into formulas that are more contrived than inspired. It goes on a long time telling us about sleep and in the end almost succeeds in its persuasion.