The baton is passed. At the end of his farewell concert at the National Cathedral on Wednesday night, Norman Scribner, 76, who founded the Choral Arts Society and led it for 47 years, stood on the podium while Scott Tucker, his designated successor, strode up the aisle and literally took the stick from his hand before enveloping him in a bear hug.
The evening, planned by Scribner with the meticulousness that characterizes him, was less a public program than a family celebration that just happened to involve hundreds of people. The program honored various facets of the institution’s past: the cathedral (with two selections conducted by Michael McCarthy, the music director of the cathedral’s choruses); Scribner’s mentor Richard Wayne Dirksen (represented by two of his own choral compositions conducted by Robert Shafer); the soloists who have sung with the chorus over the years; the associate conductors who have served as rehearsal pianists. The spectacle of two former associate conductors, J. Reilly Lewis (now head of two choruses of his own, the Cathedral Choral Society and the Bach Consort) and Joseph Holt (who leads Gloria Musicae in Sarasota, Fla.), banging out a four-hand arrangement of the overture to Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” definitely evoked a family gathering after everyone has had a few drinks.
The program featured composers familiar to choral singers in general and Choral Arts in particular, from Randall Thompson’s beautiful “Alleluia” to Norman Dello Joio (whose name Scribner bowdlerized to “Jelly-o” before correcting himself). Indeed, there was something a little dusty about it. When the Heritage Signature Chorale under Stanley J. Thurston tackled Dello Joio’s “A Jubilant Song,” they sounded dutiful; when they and the Choral Arts singers launched into a spiritual, “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord,” the whole room seemed to relax. The old-fashioned air of the presentation contrasted with the many young faces in the chorus itself.
In the cathedral, sound trails across the great spaces like jet trails, long and fuzzy and melting away at the end. It’s hard to be a soloist: Ralph Alan Herndon, a booming gospel singer, sounded downright dwarfed by the combined choruses, and Janice Chandler Eteme marshaled a beautiful clear focus for “O patria mia” from Verdi’s “Aida,” but seemed to have little left in reserve for Mozart’s “Laudate Dominum.” Karen Henricson was called on to make stratospheric high sounds in a section from a Requiem by Paul Leavitt, a bass in the chorus; one envisioned the cathedral’s windows shattering.
After the concert, the chorus announced the status of the Legacy Campaign it began four months ago as a farewell present in Scribner’s honor to uphold the chorus’s musical standards: commissioning, coaching and so forth. So far $1 million has been raised.
As for Scribner, after leading two biting excerpts from Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers,” heavy on the rich bass, he bade the Choral Arts Society an official farewell. Well, except that he’s bringing the chorus to France this summer for performances of the Berlioz Requiem under Leonard Slatkin. That will really be the final farewell, but Washington, already sated with goodbyes, won’t be there to see it.