The Choral Arts Society of Washington hits the big time this weekend as it hosts John Adams, a Grammy-winning conductor and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, and Audra McDonald, a Tony Award-winning Broadway star and classical soprano. Having either of these performers appear with the chorus would be an event. Having both at the same time is a slice of musical heaven.
The program will consist of works by Adams, Ives, Gershwin, Berlin and Verdi -- a diverse selection that reflects the society's long and varied history. Now in its 39th season, the Choral Arts Society is one of America's leading symphonic choruses, consisting of 200 professional-caliber volunteer singers. The society has sung with leading conductors, created a national choral radio series and has a Grammy-winning CD in its catalogue ("Of Rage and Remembrance," recorded with Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra).
Adams will be conducting the chorus in his 1981 work "Harmonium," a richly emotional piece that incorporates poems by John Donne ("Negative Love") and Emily Dickinson ("Because I Could Not Stop for Death" and "Wild Nights"). Though he is often grouped with other minimalist composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich, Adams was described in a 1987 magazine profile as "a minimalist bored with minimalism," and his works, which tend to emphasize melody and lyricism over percussion and repetition, are generally more accessible. And yet, considering the controversial subject matter of his 1987 opera "Nixon in China" or 1991's "The Death of Klinghoffer," Adams is most assuredly a composer with a cutting edge.
Adams will conduct McDonald in "Songs of Ragtime and Reminiscence," which includes pieces by Ives, Gershwin and Berlin chosen by the singer. Adams arranged the Ives songs, acknowledging the influence Ives has had on his compositions. Adams's "On the Transmigrations of Souls," for example, which commemorated the first anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, uses fragments from Ives's "The Unanswered Question" and won Adams the Pulitzer Prize for music last year.
McDonald has that rare vocal talent that appeals to both classical purists and pop fans, critics and audiences. She's a three-time Tony Award winner -- for "Carousel," "Master Class" and "Ragtime" -- and has been a concert performer, recording artist and dramatic actress. She starred in the ABC/Disney television production of "Annie" and earned an Emmy nomination for her dramatic role in the 2001 HBO production "Wit."
Also on the program, Choral Arts Society music director Norman Scribner will lead the group in Verdi's monumental work "Te Deum," the final, most dramatic song of his "Four Sacred Pieces." It is said that Verdi valued the work so much that he asked for the score to be buried with him.
-- MARIANNE MEYER
The Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall is at North Beauregard Street and West Braddock Road on the Alexandria campus of Northern Virginia Community College. Tickets range from $25 to $50; group and student discounts are available. Tickets can be ordered through the Choral Arts Box Office at 202-244-3669. For more information, visit www.choralarts.org.
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