Every Tuesday, at 10 minutes past noon, the charming, intimate, mid-19th-century Church of the Epiphany offers brief lunch-hour concerts. These are never more inviting than in midsummer, when relief from the heat, humidity and overpopulation of downtown Washington may be found by taking just a few steps off the sidewalk and into 1317 G St. NW.
Yesterday the music was provided by the U.S. Army Strings, under the direction of Maj. Jim Keene. His ensemble of 20 young men and women was culled from the colorfully named U.S. Army Strolling Strings, an ensemble that has performed at the White House for every administration since the 1950s.
The program was made up of substantial works by Gustav Holst and Antonin Dvorak, augmented by familiar miniatures by Aaron Copland ("Hoedown" from "Rodeo"), Samuel Barber (Adagio for Strings), John Philip Sousa ("The Stars and Stripes Forever") and the aching, anonymous genius who wrote "Shenandoah." (How one wishes it were possible to trace our folk music back to its sources -- and how surprised the songwriters would likely be to find their music played and revered so many years later.)
In the United States, Holst is known almost exclusively for "The Planets," that invigorating, improbable mixture of Edwardian pomp and musical science fiction. "St. Paul's Suite" is equally individual, combining as it does sturdy, propulsive, veddy British melodies -- some of them appropriated ("Greensleeves"), some of them Holst's own -- with wailing explorations of Eastern modality. The playing was crisp and assertive, yet shot through with sentiment, as befits Holst's time and place.
Dvorak's Serenade for String Orchestra is a five-movement confection of comfortable melodies and healthy nostalgia that passes very pleasantly. The arrangement of "Shenandoah," complete with an accordion doing a very good imitation of a warbling harmonica, seemed a little busy and ornate for such a direct and plaintive tune; it was as though the arranger, Alex Smith, were a little distrustful of stark simplicity. But the playing was exemplary, Keene setting out a clear beat with his right hand while calling up all sorts of expressive detail with his left.
The famous "Hoedown" received perhaps the slowest and most serene performance I've heard of this work, an unusual reading. Still, it's wonderful music -- abstract, catchy, simple and modernist all at once -- and it was intriguing to examine it from a different vantage point.
The Church of the Epiphany has unusually good acoustics for a house of worship, where echoes and acoustic shadows so often predominate. Even from my seat toward the back, the sound had considerable clarity and presence. A list of upcoming concerts can be found at www.epiphanydc.org.