A review of Friday night's Choral Arts Society concert incorrectly identified the tenor. It was Karl Dent, not Anthony Dean Griffey. (Published 02/29/2000)
Bells were ringing last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The Choral Arts Society, Norman Scribner conducting, gave a program that began with "wild bells," concluded with funeral bells and included sleigh bells, wedding bells and (most spectacularly) fire-alarm bells in between.
The program opened with the world premiere of the brilliantly imaginative, rich-textured "Ring out, wild bells to the wild sky" of Augusta Read Thomas, a setting of selected texts by Alfred Lord Tennyson, notably "In Memoriam" and "Crossing the Bar." It began, appropriately, with prolonged bell sounds, not only on metallic percussion but also in the choral voices that held the first syllable, "Ring," with a bell-like resonance.
Whether or not Thomas took some of her inspiration from Rachmaninoff's "The Bells," which concluded the program, there were resemblances. Both composers gave particular attention to sound textures, using brilliant orchestration and choral fireworks. Both went in for maximum contrast and both end with a sort of elegy after moments of wild exhilaration. Both also gave soprano Carmen Pelton rich opportunities to display her clear, silver-bright soprano tone.
Thomas's work seems destined for a busy future with choruses that, like the Choral Arts Society, can depend on virtuoso technique and strong emotional expression. Rachmaninoff's setting of Edgar Allan Poe's classic poem (in Russian translation) shows what he could do when not writing for the piano. Its third movement, a vocal tone poem about fire, had enormous impact.
Between these two extroverted display pieces, the chorus sang Benjamin Britten's tenderly moralistic "Cantata Misericordium," a treatment of the story of the good Samaritan with a sometimes very dramatic Latin text.
Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey and baritone Christopher Robertson sang expertly in this and the Rachmaninoff.