The Cathedral Choral Society finished its 75th-anniversary season Sunday in a blast of drums that seemed to shake the massive pillars of Washington National Cathedral. Dvorák’s “Te Deum,” which the afternoon’s conductor, Patrick Dupré Quigley, described as “like the last 20 minutes of Meyerbeer’s grandest opera” — translation: melodious and over-the-top — was a resounding close to a tough but honorable season.
J. Reilly Lewis, the chorus’s longtime music director, planned this concert as a triumphant finale to the anniversary, including commissioning the composer Nico Muhly for a piece, “Looking Up,” that had its world premiere. But Lewis died in June, leaving the chorus bereft and scrambling for leaders for the season’s concerts. Quigley, the ambitious founder of the much-recorded vocal ensemble Seraphic Fire, with a number of prestigious orchestral guest-conducting gigs under his belt, hosted the finale with flair.
A goal of the program was to celebrate the building as well as the chorus, continuing the group’s ongoing attempts to make a virtue out of the challenging conditions of performing concert music in a cathedral. The first piece didn’t even involve the chorus; it was Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending,” with Nurit Bar-Josef, the concertmaster of the National Symphony Orchestra, in the solo part of the bird, sounding sweet and delicate in the vast spaces around her.
The program continued with Williams’s “Five Mystical Songs,” with the baritone soloist Michael Nyby lyrical and able, if at times a little pale, in the solo line. But the afternoon really took off with the Muhly world premiere. Muhly has been known as something of an enfant terrible (one of his highest-profile commissions to date was “Two Boys” at the Metropolitan Opera, and he’s working on another commission, based on Alfred Hitchcock’s “Marnie,” for the 2019-2020 season); he also trained as a boy chorister, so choral writing is a home base for him.
This piece, which set three pithy and disparate religious texts — the first one taken from an introduction to a 17th-century hymnal, talking about how psalms are to be sung — had a wonderful, engaging assurance in the interplay between forceful, emphatic instrumental lines and the chorus’s halo of vocal sound. (In the soupy cathedral, it was sadly impossible to make out the words.) The second text was a litany of blessings, with individual soloists from the chorus sounding vulnerable and fragile as they detailed the individual objects to be blessed, and the whole chorus chiming in warmly with the blessing. It’s a strong piece, and I hope it has a long performance life.
Then came the “Te Deum,” in which both Nyby and the soprano Colleen Daly (who was also featured at the Washington Chorus’s season-ending concert last week) showed vocal muscle as well as vocal beauty. And Quigley conducted so vigorously that at the final cutoff he accidentally hit a mic stand behind him and broke his baton — giving a bit of extra spice to the afternoon’s close.