If any one thing defines the British Empire at its grandest hour, it is the music of Edward Elgar, and Saturday's opening concert of the third Rock Creek Festival was an all-Elgar affair of choral and organ music. No setting for a celebration could have been more apt: It was held at the historic St. Paul's Church, Rock Creek Parish, a newly restored Colonial-era church with surprisingly cathedral-like acoustics.
Judging by the riveting performance of the St. Paul's choir, the festival promises to appeal to many tastes, including both contemporary styles and music from earlier times. Events will also take place in the recently updated St. Paul's Center, which also houses the festival's art exhibit.
While Elgar wrote a lot of music, most Americans know little of it except for the "Pomp and Circumstance" march, the "Enigma Variations" for orchestra, and perhaps his oratorio "The Dream of Gerontius." Led by the choir's director, Graham Elliott, the chorus of five men and three women sang nine of Elgar's most impressive sacred works. Organist Neil Weston supplied sturdy accompaniment.
Elliott kept his sopranos focused on the pure sonorities of a boys choir and made the most of the church's reverberations, though at times he turned up the choral volume too far. Above all, his approach to the psalm settings and Te Deum echoed the voluminous pageantry and sonic thrust of music designed for religious ritual -- though, to these ears, Elgar evidently disliked minor harmonies and dissonance, preferring major keys often veering toward high bombast. Elliott also played Elgar's Sonata, Op. 28, on the church's stately new two-keyboard Dobson organ, revealing its sonic splendor and coloristic versatility.
The festival continues through Friday. Sunday brought a choral evensong event. Today's program features a lunchtime concert by young local musicians, an afternoon workshop on baroque dance, and two evening concerts: music of 16th- and 17th-century Spain and a late-nighter by the Countertop Quartet. Tomorrow brings an afternoon open rehearsal and evening vocal and orchestral concert conducted by the well-known choral composer John Rutter. On Wednesday night, John Scott will give an organ recital. On Thursday, a daytime piano master class will be followed by an evening piano concert by the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, faculty and students. The festival closes Friday with "A Jazz Spectacular." Daytime offerings and (ample) parking are free.