We are closing out a century notable for (among many other things) the quality and quantity of its choral music. The Metropolitan Chorus and conductor Barry Hemphill gave graceful recognition to this fact last night in a concert in the First Presbyterian Church, Arlington. The program, titled "A Last Hurrah for the 20th Century!," included music of Scott Joplin, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten and Igor Stravinsky. Given a vast field from which to choose a single program, they concentrated wisely on audience appeal.
Joplin's choruses from his opera "Treemonisha," Vaughan Williams's Mass in G Minor, Britten's "Hymn to St. Cecelia" and Stravinsky's "Symphony of Psalms" transcend their differences of style and subject matter with two important points in common: all are the work of composers who lived in England or America and all are perceptibly modern in style but not too modern for an audience whose taste was formed on music of a previous century.
The three Joplin choruses, "We're Goin' Around," "Aunt Dinah Has Blowed de Horn" and "A Real Slow Drag," are, like all of Joplin's best work, essentially dance pieces in a style that dates from early in the century but is still popular. All three work well outside of the operatic context in which they first appeared; all are melodically charming and rhythmically captivating--particularly the slow drag, the opera's festive finale, which has some fine, subtle contrasts in rhythm and in vocal arrangements. All three were sung with finely balanced and blended voices, exemplary diction and a level of energy and rhythmic definition that was satisfactory but could have been stronger.
Vaughan Williams's Mass is distinctly modern (and distinctly British, despite its Latin text) in the way it balances a late romantic lushness of harmony with Elizabethan intricacies of structure and its alternation of large and small groups of performers. It treats the text reverently but efficiently, avoiding the operatic flourishes and repetitions common in the 18th and 19th centuries, indulging in deeply expressive moments but avoiding vocal display for its own sake. It is music that would sound appropriate in an actual religious service; it is well suited to a community chorus. Hemphill and the Metropolitan Chorus performed it with relish, which the audience shared.
Britten's Hymn (a modest name for a rather elaborate cantata) was a doubly appropriate choice for the program; not only is it one of the century's most beautiful choral works, both in words (by W.H. Auden) and in music, it is also an invocation of the patron saint of music, whose feast is traditionally celebrated at this time of year (the actual date is Nov. 22). It is a late addition to a tradition that inspired some of the finest works of Purcell and Handel; music of great urbanity and polish, which were beautifully realized in this performance.
Stravinsky's symphony, one of the landmarks of his neoclassic manner, must have shocked its first audiences; it is a deeply reverent work by a composer who had built his international reputation on irreverence. Idiomatically sung, it brought to a fine conclusion a concert well designed to win converts to the music of the 20th century--well, some of the music of the 20th century.