Herman Berlinski, who is an institution in the musical-cultural life of this city, was a threefold star of the program of sacred music of the Jewish High Holy Days at the Washington Cathedral Sunday.
As conductor of the Shir Chadash Chorale, he led the well-prepared chamber chorus in music for the synagogue by German-trained composers. As organist, he gave a richly colorful and dramatically paced performance of "The Great Trumpet and the Small Still Voice" by Salomon Sulzer, a 19th-century Romantic. And as a composer, he unveiled the first complete performance of his liturgical trilogy, "The Days of Awe," a significant 35-minute piece that has been in the making for more than 20 years.
Berlinski has sought to develop traditional musical ideas in this work and to elaborate, through music, the words of the prayers. In doing so, he has focused, with great success, on the sense of awe implied in the title. His orchestration provides context and atmosphere rather than thematic development, and the chorus is given the task of amplifying and commenting on the words of the soloists. All of this is thoroughly in the mainstream represented by the shorter pieces that preceded Berlinski's, but Berlinski brought to his own music a sophistication and imagination light-years removed from the pleasant simplicities of those others.
The intricacies (and the words) of the large concerted sections were reduced to mush by the cathedral acoustics, but the fine solo contributions by tenor Harold Orback and baritone Donald Boothman and the splendid shofar playing of Roger Lebbin rang out clearly and elegantly.