The Choral Arts Society launched its 25th-aniversary season with a bang Sunday night at the Kennedy Center. Several bangs, in fact, not to mention a (very good) visiting boys choir, a peripatetic brass ensemble that fanfared from various parts of the first tier, and crashes of thunder that earned percussionist Anthony Ames a solo bow. A moving tribute to Leonard Bernstein opened the program: the last of his "Chichester Psalms," which the chorus had sung under his direction.
Carl Orff's rambunctious "Carmina burana" shared the evening with the grandiose prologue to Arrigo Boito's opera "Mefistofele." This music has a kind of opulence suited to a dialogue between God and the Devil, climaxing with a bet about whether the Devil can capture the soul of Faust. It takes place in Heaven amid the joyful sounds of angelic choirs (including a boys choir representing cherubim) with lots of brass and percussion in the accompaniment, and it had moments of pure glory in Sunday night's performance.
Much of the glory was choral and instrumental: bright sopranos, resonant tenors, warm altos and rich basses singing with a wonderfully balanced ensemble sound and clear diction. The Maryland Boy Choir proved itself a worthy partner for the Choral Arts Society, both in the Boito and in the "Amor volat undique" segment of "Carmina burana," in dialogue with the exquisite solo of soprano Beverly Hoch. The orchestra (full of familiar faces from the National Symphony) responded to director Norman Scribner's baton with power and precision.
Even with the competition of about 400 skilled musicians on the same stage, a very strong impression was made by bass-baritone Kevin Short. He is not exactly unknown, having won several major competitions (including the Rosa Ponselle) and sung here in the Washington Concert Opera's "I Puritani," but we should hear more of him in the future.
In "Carmina burana," distinguished solo work was done by tenor Robert Baker and baritone Mark Oswald as well as Hoch. All of them were particularly impressive in the cruel high notes Orff imposes on his soloists. Baker was almost too good; in "Olim lacus colueram," the lament of a roast swan that is being put on the table, the high notes are supposed to make the singer sound uncomfortable, but Baker seemed right at home up in the tenor stratosphere.