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When Robert Shafer was forced out of his position as director of the Washington Chorus (formerly the Oratorio Society of Washington), he did not just go away quietly. As happens when a colony of honeybees births a new queen, Shafer took a small swarm of singers and formed a new hive, the City Choir of Washington. Having finally made it to one of the group's concerts on Friday night, at Northern Virginia Community College's Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall, I am tempted to demand that the group change its name to the Suburban Choir of Alexandria (just as the football team that used to play here in Washington should change its name to the Landover Redskins), but CCW is coming back into the city for their spring concert. As Shafer noted during his extensive commentary on the program, complimentary parking in the Schlesinger Center's garage sure beats paying $17 at the Kennedy Center.
Scaling down from the 250 voices of Washington Chorus to just under a hundred, Shafer immediately began programming the most interesting seasons of any of the big choral groups in Washington: Handel's Solomon and Israel in Egypt; Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers. Shafer may not have caved to the pressure and programmed yet another Messiah -- at least not this year -- but he did opt for a rather unadventurous "Music for Christmas" concert this month. In an ominous sign of these financially precarious times, hordes of conventionally minded concert-goers did not buy tickets, making Friday night's audience fairly sparse. Given the likelihood of some contraction in Washington's classical music world, especially the heavily overpopulated ranks of large volunteer choruses, over the next year or two, CCW may be in for some rough water ahead.
Considering the size and non-professional nature of this chorus, they are capable of making beautiful and even rarefied sounds, as in the more unusual selections on this mixed program. There were two welcome Monteverdi selections, the dance-like Beatus vir (not really for Christmas, but with lovely singing from paired sopranos Robin Smith and Kelly Tice) and Pulchra es from the 1610 Vespers (again, not really for Christmas). In dulci jubilo showed the ingenuity of Samuel Scheidt (who, in fact, did not travel to Venice, as Shafer claimed in his commentary, but was certainly aware of the Venetian style) in adapting a German tune, with sparkling interplay from two trumpeters.
The main reason to drag myself out to northern Virginia was to hear the local premiere of Jennifer Higdon's O Magnum Mysterium, a fairly simple but alluring setting of the traditional Latin text, with English translation mixed in. It featured sounds of "glass harmonica," really just a few water-filled glasses tuned to an open fifth, providing an atmospheric but often inaudible background drone. The pick-up orchestra, who played well elsewhere the concert (including in a somewhat vanilla rendition of one of Michel de Lalande's Symphonies de Noëls), here featured its two flutists riffing in and out of the planing choral textures, which build up plangent dissonances from plain beginnings over the course of time. Did this make up for the overlong carol singalongs (one does not need to sing all the verses, except in church) and -- God help us -- a Hallelujah Chorus in which the audience was asked, unprepared, to stand and sing along? Probably not.
J. Higdon, O Magnum Mysterium (inter alia), Handel and Haydn Society (2005)
The only concert remaining in the City Choir of Washington's season will combine performances of Haydn's Lord Nelson Mass, Shafer's Lux Aeterna, and the Duruflé Requiem (April 19, 2009), at National Presbyterian Church.
This review is an Ionarts exclusive.