Washington National Cathedral, with its damp and eternally reverberant acoustics, will never be an ideal place to hear most music, but I find myself forgiving its shortcomings every time I attend a concert there. We hear a lot about the great outdoors; well, the cathedral is the great indoors, and any performance within its walls takes on an extra-musical grandeur that is likely to remain indelible in the memory.
The 21st Century Consort offered a program of "Visual Music at the Cathedral" Tuesday night, in conjunction with a related exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Both exhibition and concert explored a condition known as synesthesia, in which aural and visual senses combine in such a way that musical sounds evoke specific colors. A number of celebrated composers have been affected by synesthesia; Olivier Messiaen once walked out of a ballet based on his music because the lighting design clashed so violently with what he "saw" while he was listening.
Christopher Patton, a composer and the managing director of the 21st Century Consort, believes that "the cathedral itself is a form of visual music." Certainly his own work "Out of Darkness, for Consort and Lighting Array" made the most of the contrasts of dark and light within the gigantic space. Much of the piece, which is scored for 15 players, took place in near-total blackness (percussionists made mysterious sounds in the recesses of the hall before running up the aisles to join the ensemble).
The audience faced backward in the cathedral, permitting an unobstructed view of the ornate stained-glass window by Rowan LeCompte above the main entrance, which brightened and darkened and turned aquamarine by turn -- a lovely visual complement to the score. The music itself was raptly lyrical and timeless -- some vocal passages sounded as though they could have come either from the Renaissance or from Karlheinz Stockhausen's celebrated 1950s tape piece "Song of the Youths." The visual complement, by Daniel MacLean Wagner and Justin Thomas, proved an immaculate fit.
Debussy's "Prelude a l'Apres-midi d'une Faune" began the program, solo flute slithering up and down pensively in the grand space. Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony (Op. 9) struck me as exactly the wrong piece to play in the cathedral -- its dense, straining chromaticism was muddled by the booming reverberation, although the performance itself sounded like a fine one. (The 21st Century Consort opted to play a clarified arrangement for flute, clarinet, piano, violin and cello fashioned by Schoenberg's student Anton Webern, that master of essentialism.)
Two works for solo organ by Messiaen were perfectly placed, however. Erik Suter played the third movement of "L'Ascension" (subtitled "Outburst of joy from a soul before the Glory of Christ which is its own glory") and the earliest of the composer's mature works, "Le Banquet Celeste" ("The Celestial Banquet"). Messiaen was an organist at a cathedral in Paris for much of his life, and he created these vibrant, fiercely colorful yet appropriately dignified works for an acoustic very similar to the one found Tuesday. Suter's performance was exhilaratingly multidimensional -- the pieces seemed vast, vivid hallucinations. The conclusion of "Le Banquet Celeste" features a sustained note so low and penetrating that it seemed to emanate from the very floor of the cathedral, catching us all in its dark vibration.
Christopher Kendall, the artistic director of the 21st Century Consort, conducted the Schoenberg and Patton pieces with his usual diligence and sensitivity. After many years based in Washington, where he helped found what was originally known as the 20th Century Consort and the celebrated early music group the Folger Consort, Kendall has just been named the dean of the University of Michigan School of Music. Good news for Kendall and Ann Arbor; less happy news for us, although Kendall plans to continue some association with both groups.
Washington National Cathedral continues its summer music festival through July 31; for information, call 202-537-6200 or visit www.nationalcathedral.org.