Henry Purcell's "Ode on St. Cecilia's Day" and Franz Schubert's Mass in E flat have the distinctions of being both highly regarded and rarely performed. Conductor Paul Callaway mitigated the latter situation by programming these works on the Cathedral Choral Society concert at Washington Cathedral yesterday afternoon, providing a polished and carefully prepared performance that ably demonstrated the many reasons for the works' well-deserved respect.
Despite moments of almost Handelian choral majesty, the Purcell ode is essentially a vehicle for solo vocal display and orchestral color. Of the seven soloists who appeared, the most thrilling and impressive moments were provided by countertenor Drew Minter and baritone Richard Dirksen. Dirksen's voice combines richness with flexibility, while Minter's control and almost haunting purity seem more astonishing every time he is heard. Stylish ornamentation and the rhythmic clarity that Callaway achieved gave the work an unflagging sense of direction and excitement.
A successful interpretation of Schubert's highly personal mass setting depends on attention to the innovative wind scoring without creating a balance problem for the chorus. Callaway's many years of experience in dealing with the Washington Cathedral's tricky acoustics, coupled with the sensitive playing by members of the National Symphony, produced an opulent sound that even Schubert's formalistic counterpoint couldn't entirely dispel.