Some would say that House Majority Leader Jim Wright made his performing arts debut last night at the Kennedy Center. He narrated substantial excerpts from Jefferson in a performance of Randall Thompson's "The Testament of Freedom" by the Schola Cantorum of Texas. The choir is from Fort Worth, Wright's home district.
Others, of course, could argue that Wright -- who is one of the distinguished speakers in Congress -- has been a performing artist for many years, on the House floor.
Whichever is the case, the idea of joining Wright's sonorous oratorical voice with the voices of this middle-sized choir in its Washington debut turned out to be a fine one. Wright staff aide Charmayne Marsh said that this was Wright's first appearance in such a role, but only because it was the first time he had been asked. Wright's primary concern right now, of course, is to become Speaker of the House, but he also has real promise as a speaker in classical works. He has control of verbal cadences; he has excellent instinct for dramatic emphasis, without overdoing it; and he knows how to pace and how to build a crescendo. Adlai Stevenson used to exercise the same kinds of effects in reading Copland's "A Lincoln Portrait" (perhaps the wrong political party for Wright's current purposes).
Admittedly, Wright was not hurt by the quality of his material. The high point came as he read, with musical accompaniment, that extraordinary letter that the aged Jefferson addressed to the aged Adams in 1821:
"I shall not die without a hope that light and liberty are on steady advance . . . And even should the cloud of barbarism and despotism again obscure the science and liberties of Europe, this country remains to preserve and restore light and liberty to them . . . The flames kindled on the 4th of July, 1776, have spread over too much of the globe to be extinguished by the feeble engines of despotism; on the contrary, they will consume those engines and all who work them."
In Thompson's original work, commissioned by the University of Virginia for the 200th anniversary of Jefferson's birth, those lines were sung by male chorus with orchestra -- but they work just as well, if not better, the way they were done last night.
This is a fine work, especially the mighty chorale that begins and ends it: "The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy but cannot disjoin them" (sung last night by male and fermale voices).
At 60 voices, the Schola Cantorum gives Fort Worth a choir of a type that we don't have in this choir-clogged city. Here the choice is between Washington's five very large choirs, or the chamber choirs, like the 40-voice Washington Bach Consort.
This Fort Worth group lacks the raw power and range of sonorities, or even the precision, of the Choral Arts Society. But it has a compensating warmth, with some especially delicate and lovely textures in unpretentious but lovely works like John Rutter's "Five Childhood Lyrics."
These singers, under conductor Gary Ebensberger, are also especially skilled at singing softly, which lent an especially meditative tone to the opening works by William Byrd and Antonio Lotti.
That lightness also made possible a special lilt in the engaging first encore, a "Neighbor's Chorus" from Offenbach's "La jolie parfumeuse." Perhaps because of fatigue, however, there were occasional pitch problems near the end.
Perhaps the congressman was the drawing card, but the chorus was well worth hearing.