Washington National Cathedral celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, officially on September 29, the date that the cornerstone was laid down in 1907. To celebrate the centenary, the Cathedral Choral Society presented a commissioned work on Sunday afternoon, a new oratorio by American composer Dominick Argento. Having recently watched his wife die of an undiagnosable neurological ailment and also having turned 80 himself, Argento thought he had retired from composition. The persistence of CCS's director, J. Reilly Lewis, however, combined with the gentle suggestion of Argento's late wife to lead him to fulfill the commission with Evensong: Of Love and Angels, dedicated to the memory of Carolyn Bailey Argento.
Dominick Argento and J. Reilly Lewis
photo courtesy of Cathedral Choral Society
It galls me as a Catholic and a medieval historian that the Anglicans are more faithful to the Divine Office than the modern Catholic church. Vespers (Evensong) is a venerable and living tradition in the Episcopalian church, and that is the background of this new oratorio, which follows the basic outline of the service in the Book of Common Prayer. That being said, Argento has chosen once again to write his own texts for the work, in some cases modifying liturgical texts and in others creating new ones.
The results of that approach were mixed. Liturgical and Biblical texts are solid, proven over centuries and weighted with significance beyond the simple content of their meaning. While Evensong is no doubt a sincere expression of the love Argento shared with his late wife, the newly composed parts of the libretto pale in comparison, coming dangerously close to the sentiments of a Hallmark card. For example, the Sermon movement concludes, "Yes, we are mere mortals and this gift of light comes at the cost of everything we are, and all that we will ever be. Giving it is the greatest blessing within our power. To give it is to be -- for a little while at least -- among the Angels." It is true to the tone of many homilists and thus comes off, like them, as hardly profound.
The scriptural reading that provides the basis of Evensong is taken from the fifth chapter of the Gospel of John. Argento focuses on the sick and infirm crowds huddled around the pool of Bethsaida (Bethesda), waiting for the miraculous cure associated with that place in Jerusalem. According to a legend, an angel would descend to the place and stir up the water, after which the first person to step into the water would be healed. The hope for a miraculous cure for a terminal illness is what appealed to Argento, according to his note in the program (Argento's wife spent her final days in a Bethesda Rehabilitation Center in Minnesota). A fascination with that scene is found in art history, too, as in the beautiful painted doors by Veronese on the organ of San Sebastiano in Venice, for example.
The evangelist's ultimate point in this story, however, is that the man who is eventually healed miraculously has languished by the pool in false hope. Healing the man himself, Jesus tells him to stand up and take his bedroll with him, leading to a confrontation with the priests in the Temple. With the miracle having taken place on the Sabbath, Jesus violated the letter of the law by ordering the sick man to carry something on the prescribed day of rest. An antiphon on a text from this story (Domine non habeo hominem, in the voice of the sick man) is found in manuscripts of the Divine Office on Friday after the first Sunday of Lent, a placement that relates the infirm man's hopeless waiting to the Lenten search for faith. Why wait around for an angel when Jesus is right at hand?
Tim Smith, 'Evensong' strikes a chord in Washington (Baltimore Sun, March 4)
Joe Banno, Cathedral Choral Society (Washington Post, March 4)
Karl Gehrke, New Argento work honors his late wife (Minnesota Public Radio, February 28)
The liturgical context is rich, to be sure, of which only the surface has been scratched in Evensong. Musically, Argento's score was in the largely neoclassical style we have come to expect from him, with dissonances ranging from lush to acerbic almost always resolving to triads and perfect intervals. A striking main theme pervades the work, with its first three notes based on Argento's late wife's initials, C-B-A (that is, down a minor second and up a minor seventh). It opens the work, stated by a solo oboe in the first bars of the orchestral Threnody. It is answered by a solo viola, and then it descends into the bass instruments, starting a half-step lower at each appearance. A series of chords based on the three-note motif (C major, B major, A major) is heard many times, too, and actually concludes the final movement, hovering in the distance over a D pedal point, denying a final sense of resolution.
That kind of compositional complexity is what belies the superficial comparisons one could make between sections of this work and sacred pop by the likes of Paul McCartney or John Rutter. Yes, there were elements of the work that seemed facile or overly sentimental, but much of the piece had a quiet, shimmering beauty. The orchestration of the striking Phos Hilaron dialogue featured shiny trilling strings, harp swooshes, and bells, as backdrop to the traditional greeting of the Vesper light, reworked as the encounter of the healing angel and the afflicted. The performance was generally of an impressively high quality, especially the solo singing from clarion soprano Elizabeth Futral and delicate treble Nelson Reed. The mostly volunteer singers of the Cathedral Choral Society negotiated the difficult unaccompanied choruses with a well-rehearsed assurance, dropping in pitch only slightly during the orchestral tacet sections in the Nunc dimittis and Anthem movements.
Elizabeth Futral, photo by Christian Steiner
Conductor J. Reilly Lewis is to be commended for succeeding in bringing Argento back to composition (WETA-FM has released an MP3 file containing a conversation with Argento and Lewis, led by Deb Lamberton) and for celebrating the National Cathedral centenary in such a magnificent way. The concert opened with a less successful rendition of Mozart's Vesperae Solennes de Confessore, K. 339. From my initial seat in the north transept, the large chorus and orchestra seemed more at odds than not, and the solo vocal quartet, who stood at the edge of the crossing facing down the nave, could barely be heard. The main reason to care about this piece at all is the Laudate Dominum movement, which Elizabeth Futral sang with beautiful clarity, but the Laudate pueri dominum movement has some worthy and unusual music, too. It was a nice touch to have William Culverhouse's Gregorian schola from the Catholic cathedral of Washington, St. Matthew's, to sing the opening and closing versicles and the Latin antiphons that introduced each of Mozart's psalm (and Magnificat) settings.
WETA (90.9 FM) recorded this concert for broadcast at a future date, and the live recording will be released commercially. The final performance of the Cathedral Choral Society's season will feature Mendelssohn's Elijah (May 18, 4 pm).