When Choral Arts Society of Washington’s artistic director, Scott Tucker, polled his musicians Sunday afternoon at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall asking how many were performing Hector Berlioz’s Requiem for the first time, the majority raised their hands — not a surprising statistic given that the Washington area has not heard it live for nearly 15 years.
With an operatic score calling for an oversize orchestra, including 16 timpani, 12 French horns, four brass choirs and more than 200 voices, the “Grande Messe des Morts,” Op. 5 is such a massive undertaking that it rarely comes around on the concert circuit.
Up for the challenge, the Choral Arts’ 200-strong chorus and expanded orchestra ended the region’s drought with a polished and heroic performance of Berlioz’s 1837 gem. From the ominous string opener to the tender floating phrases of the concluding “Agnus Dei,” the choristers and instrumentalists tackled the 90-minute work thoughtfully as a cohesive whole. Highlights under Tucker’s baton included the chorus’s warm “Quaerens me” sung a cappella, the roiling and grandiose “Dies irae” with antiphonal brass choirs perched in the hall’s upper tiers and an introspective “Offertoire,” with many more fine moments in between. Singing from the rear of the hall in the “Sanctus,” guest tenor Dustin Lucas’s sweetly understated voice was sometimes overpowered, but the effect still worked.
As a tribute to the Cathedral Choral Society’s late conductor, J. Reilly Lewis, who died over the summer, the Choral Arts sang responsively in “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder” from J.S. Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” BWV 244. The group also gave Steven Stucky’s “Take Him, Earth” an evocative performance, bringing out the composition’s nuances as a fitting homage to the composer, who also died earlier this year.