The music of the French baroque is characterized by grace and a lack of tension. These are precisely the qualities that the Oratorio Society of Washington brought to their French baroque program at the National Shrine last night. They also filled the vast spaces with the pomp and glory that this period so delighted in, a splendor personified in the exciting sound of the high trumpet slicing through the choral and orchestral textures.
Robert Shafer had his chorus in fine form. For the "Messe des Morts" (Requiem) by Jean Gilles, they sang with a weightless, easy sound that projected innocence and an exquisitely French spirituality.
The Charpentier "Te Deum" found their attacks sharper, their tone more focused, their rhythmic contours more incisive. This is music to process by, however, and it might have been allowed to move with a little more dispatch.
The requiem also seemed slow, but in this case the music itself was the culprit.In its day, this requiem commemorated some of France's finest, Louis XV among others, and undoubtedly, in the context of the service with the accompaning strong emotions of public mourning, it was highly moving. As a concert piece, however, it leaves a lot to be desired -- such as drama, passion and excitement.
Shafer had a couple of marvelous singers among his six soloists: countertenor Guy Manning, who sings powerfully and with an evident understanding of the style, and tenor Stanley Cornett, who has a superb voice that he uses intelligently. The other four were serviceable but undistinguished.
The orchestra did its job nicely, on the whole, and considering that in shrine no performer can really hear the other performers, the ensemble was quite good.