For pure ambition, yesterday's Composers' Birthday Concert at the Washington Cathedral deserves an A-plus. But the reach of this extravaganza exceeded its grasp in actual performance when the Cathedral Choral Society, the Howard University Chorale, the J. Weldon Norris Chorale, the NSO Brass Ensemble and other members of the NSO convened to wish a musical "Happy 300th Birthday" to composers Handel, Bach and Domenico Scarlatti, and a "Happy 400th Birthday" to composer Heinrich Schu tz.
Schu tz is the dark horse in this quartet of celebrities, but musicians and specialists know him well as a notable German musician of the 17th century. He was also an influential composer and teacher. Fortunately, the works of the other three composers on yesterday's program were chosen shrewdly so as not to outshine the Schu tz work.
The groups performed Schu tz's setting of Psalm 150 from "Psalmen Davids," Scarlatti's "Stabat Mater," Handel's "Dettingen" Te Deum, and Bach's Cantata No. 80. The "Stabat Mater," performed by the Cathedral Choral Society under conductor Richard W. Dirksen (accompanied by J. Reilly Lewis on organ) was the most disciplined work in performance, and therefore the most musically pleasing work in Sunday's concert. Despite some initial unsure interplay between the male and female voice parts, Dirksen worked the ensemble to glorious moments of religious expressiveness in this adaptation of a 13th-century hymn.
The Bach and the Handel, under conductor J. Weldon Norris, did not survive the acoustical pitfalls and coordinative difficulties lying in wait for a combined effort of three choruses and an orchestra. But the magnificent soprano Marilyn Moore gave these works a lyrical, indeed heavenly, quality to make this concert a birthday celebration well worth its involved logistical preparation.