Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of conductor J. Reilly Lewis.
The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, with its Byzantine-style vaulted ceilings and 89-foot-diameter tiled dome, may be an awesome-looking structure, but Friday evening the great church’s acoustic attributes left much to be desired.
The basilica hosted the season-opening concert by the Cathedral Choral Society, orphaned from its native venue while final repairs are completed at the Washington National Cathedral.
The all-Czech program (part of the city-wide Mutual Inspirations Festival) celebrated the 170th anniversary of Antonin Dvorak’s birth and featured his rarely performed “Te Deum” and the Washington premiere of the original version of Leos Janacek’s “Glagolitic Mass.”
The performances were perhaps close to excellent, but it was impossible to tell. Conductor J. Reilly Lewis spoke of “basking” in sound, but instead it was more like swimming in an ocean of reverberation with little to hold on to for aural support. The basilica’s layout made it necessary to amplify both the orchestra and vocal soloists, and their sounds rebounded off the pretty granite walls, swirling into an indistinct mush. Even Lewis’s fine chorus needed monitors to hear the orchestra, although they were only a few feet apart.
The predicament was troublesome enough in the “Te Deum,” where the festive music (premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1892 with Dvorak conducting) flowed more simply, but the blurry sonics rendered Janacek’s extraordinary and quirky “Mass” nearly unrecognizable. His subtle orchestrations and prickly transitions were lost in the soup. Only in the slower, quieter Agnus Dei section could one discern an impressive choral blend (women especially) and perceptive playing by the winds.
Large forces in large cathedrals are always problematic, but music and musicians of this stature really do deserve to be properly heard.