A cathedral is a house of worship, but it's also traditionally a place of community. That's a message Washington National Cathedral has been emphasizing, and it's a message that was underlined on Thursday night when the PostClassical Ensemble gave its first concert as an official resident group of the cathedral, and the cathedral's choir, dressed in street clothes and marching up the aisle carrying their own chairs, sent not hymns but songs of proletariat revolution into the echoing spaces of the nave.
The small, fierce revolutionary voices and the tall air of the nave proved a pregnant juxtaposition. Both represented European transplants: the cathedral built in emulation of edifices many centuries old, the songs, by Hanns Eisler, in part dealing with what the composer found when he came to America as a refugee from the Nazis in the 1930s and wrote his "Hollywood Songbook" (songs from which were interpreted, with earnest effusion, by the baritone William Sharp).
The concert was designed to mark Pearl Harbor Day with music written during World War II. The second piece, Shostakovich's second piano trio, begins by sending up a thin trickle of otherworldly harmonics from the cello, climbing like a vine toward the cathedral's dusky ceiling, while the violin sings mellowly below it, as if both instruments were feeling out the place where they found themselves. The very space of the cathedral emphasizes the smallness of an individual human voice, a metaphor for the impossible challenge of composing lasting art in the face of the Nazi threat — a challenge that, after all, each composer met, since the war is long over and the music remains.
The PostClassical Ensemble specializes in offbeat works, often including texts, so it was perfectly in keeping for the group to conclude its concert with Schoenberg's "Ode to Napoleon," which, like Strauss's "Enoch Arden," involves a vocal soloist declaiming quite a long text, in this case to energetic accompaniment from a string quartet, conducted by the PostClassical Ensemble's warm music director, Angel Gil-Ordoñez.
This is 12-tone music so effusive it's downright populist, somewhat despite Sharp's emotive declamation. Add to this a recording of the complete speech of Franklin Delano Roosevelt announcing the outbreak of war with Japan, pouring out into the cathedral with the hiss of old recordings, and you have a typical PostClassical Ensemble concert: edifying, worth hearing and a little too much of a good thing. But the cathedral, large and enduring, seems like a good space for this mercurial group — particularly thanks to its chorus, who marched out at the end of its set, carrying the music partway down the nave with it.