The great choral works of the early 20th century are charged with an urgent, irresistible optimism that seems both sweetly poignant and absolutely irretrievable 100 years later. "The Kingdom" by Sir Edward Elgar, "A Mass of Life" by Frederick Delius, the Symphony No. 8 by Gustav Mahler -- these are all vast, industrious outpourings of music and poetry that cheer on the advent of a century when worldly problems would surely be well and truly vanquished and the most cosmic ambitions fulfilled. Elgar dreamed of the universal establishment of Christ's church. Delius was frankly secular, while Mahler found his inspiration in the vague but luscious German mysticism of Goethe's "Faust." Still, the abiding spirit in these works is much the same -- unbounded, eager jubilance, as if the future were a grand and glorious gift just waiting to be unwrapped.
Ralph Vaughan Williams's "Sea Symphony" (1909) is a worthy addition to this company, and it was good to hear the Washington Chorus sing it through Sunday afternoon at the Kennedy Center, under the direction of Robert Shafer. Vaughan Williams took his inspiration from the poetry of Walt Whitman, whose exuberant (and, to this taste, somewhat clattering) exhortations almost always make for effective musical texts. The four poems chosen for "A Sea Symphony" are no exception, and Vaughan Williams makes the most of the poet's challenge to "sail forth -- steer for the deep waters only."
The performance itself was longer on spirit than it was on polish, but spirit can excuse a great deal in "A Sea Symphony." One had the sense that Shafer's mustered forces (including a surprisingly assertive orchestra) had been waiting a long time to sing out their twinned messages of hope and exploration to an anxious city that could sure use them. The excitement was palpable and persuasive, enough so that it was easy to overlook some relentless fortes and less than unified diction.
Baritone Gordon Hawkins and soprano Maire O'Brien were at their best in the last movement, a sort of metaphysical love duet titled "The Explorers," which they sang with melting empathy. Unfortunately, they could scarcely be heard when the chorus and orchestra were in full thrall: Indeed, balances were a problem throughout the afternoon. The Children's Chorus of Washington, which made its debut in a performance of this very same piece back in 1996, fulfilled its duties with requisite purity.
The program began with Sir William Walton's "Coronation Te Deum," which was written for the ascension of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. Appropriately, it sounds like Olde England through a modernist prism, both sentimental and up-to-date, with pungent writing for organ, vigorously melodic passages for chorus and orchestra, and an overall sense of celebration that is not without a certain melancholy tinge. This last is not surprising. After all, the century had not turned out as planned: two devastating wars, one only recently concluded, had shattered any easy belief in inevitable "progress."
If this performance were to happen again, I would hope that Shafer might find some way of discouraging the applause between movements that sapped any sense of a cumulative meditation. Had this been done, perhaps there wouldn't have been an interruption during a brief -- but precious and pivotal -- pause in the final movement, which was handily shattered by some premature clapping. Sorry to end this report on a downer, but this is Concert Etiquette 101: As Archie Bunker used to say -- "Stifle yourself."