Choral music in this century of musical exploration has been a safe haven of sorts for composers. The voice is not limitless in its possibilities, and those limits have often been a creative inspiration and an easy excuse for avoiding some of the more prickly rigors of atonal styles. The four works performed yesterday afternoon at the Kennedy Center by the Washington Choral Arts Society--in the opening concert of the group's season--demonstrate the richness of this century's contribution to the field.
The music included Poulenc's magnificent "Gloria," Stravinsky's three-part "Symphony of Psalms," an unknown, almost expressionist work by Frederick Delius and the world premiere of "Cantate Domino: Etude on Psalm 97" by the rising young composer Mark Adamo. Taken together, they are an elaborate survey of sacred music that is exuberant rather than penitential. And that's a relief during these dark days of autumn, with hordes of "Messiahs" and "Ceremony of Carols" lurking in the wings.
Adamo's "Cantate Domino" was the most boisterous of the bunch. The text, suggested to Adamo by the society's music director, Norman Scribner, is a delightful psalm that bursts off the page, ecstatic, joyful and over the top in its praise of God. It's an outdoor psalm, something to be recited in the head while trekking through foothills on a sunny day.
Adamo responds in kind, using large clusters of tones to suggest the uncontainable vastness of the sentiment, and occasionally using staggering entrances to make the work sound almost unrehearsed. The effect is improvisatory, a delicious impossibility for a large chorus.
If there is anything to quibble with in this music, it is the fecundity of different choral effects; there are perhaps a few too many times when the music comes to a full stop, changes direction and adopts an entirely new texture. The wealth of ideas might well be spread over a larger, multi-sectioned work, with a text that suggests a greater complexity of emotions.
Delius's "An Arabesque" was a welcome discovery. Perceptions of this composer are far too influenced by classical music radio, which uses the "Florida Suite," for instance, as drive-time wallpaper. The "Florida Suite" is ghastly. "An Arabesque," however, is not, and it toys with our usual understanding of a composer who produced large tracts of musical mediocrity.
Based on text by Jens Peter Jacobsen, the same poet who wrote the words used by Arnold Schoenberg in his "Gurrelieder," "An Arabesque" is thoroughly Germanic in musical style. The orchestral and choral writing has the overheated rhetoric of fin de siecle Vienna and its effect, surprisingly, is in the same vein as Schoenberg's early choral masterpiece.
If Delius all too often sounds rather faint, as if he composed with over-diluted watercolors, this work sets the record straight. He had at least a little fire in his belly.
Anchoring the program were two undisputed masterworks of this century's choral repertoire, Stravinsky's 1930 choral symphony and Poulenc's frisky and risque setting of the "Gloria." Stravinsky creates an edifice to God; Poulenc throws a party (with a few somber toasts). The Poulenc is more fun, reminiscent of his best boulevardier style.
The singers of the Choral Arts Society were well rehearsed, minus a few hesitant moments in the Adamo and Delius works. It is a well-balanced chorus, dominated by bright sopranos and rather less hefty in the tenors and basses.
The orchestra, conducted by Scribner, managed the difficulties of the Stravinsky and Poulenc with grace. Two soloists made two impressions. Soprano Carmen Pelton has an instrument just right for singing with a large chorus; it is a penetrating and distinctive sound with an ethereal top. Baritone Victor Ledbetter, the soloist in the Delius, made less of an impression. He is a regular on the choral soloist circuit but sounded ill at ease yesterday afternoon.
The concert bodes well for the society's 35th season.