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Anglophiles Converge on National Gallery

The National Gallery of Art here in Washington has recently opened a new exhibit on the painter Gilbert Stuart (open through July 31), who was born 250 years ago this year. In honor of that show, the next four Sunday concerts (.PDF file) in the NGA's free concert series will present music from the lifetime (1755–1828) of America's first great portraitist, by composers he might have heard here in the United States or in Great Britain, where he lived for many years. This set of concerts began yesterday, April 10, with a performance by the Christ Church Cathedral Choir, from Oxford, England.

Christ Church Cathedral ChoirThe history of the choir at Christ Church Cathedral goes back to 1526, when John Taverner became the first organist and master of the choristers at Cardinal Wolsey's new college. The position of choir director there has been held since then by, among others, William Crotch, Frederick Gore Ouseley, Roy Harris, and William Walton and is currently occupied by Stephen Darlington. The choir now has sixteen boy trebles and thirteen men (on all the other parts), some of whom are professional singers and some of whom are students at Christ Church. This venerable English tradition is maintained in the United States at Washington National Cathedral, and I am a sucker for this sound, although some people do not like to listen to boy sopranos. Actually, it is not only an English tradition, but rather it is England for the most part that has held onto it the longest and most prominently. Many of the great European composers going back to the Renaissance got their first musical training as choirboys (Dufay, Josquin, Palestrina, Haydn, and Puccini are examples who come immediately to mind, but there are many others), and there are still excellent choir schools in other European cities.

Gilbert Stuart, it turns out, was not only a painter but a musician. He was good enough at the keyboard that he actually worked for a year as an organist at St. Catherine's Church, Foster's Lane, in London. In honor of that association, organ pieces were performed on this concert by Clive Driskill-Smith, sub-organist at Christ Church Cathedral. Now, since I complained yesterday about the cheesy electronic organ used in the Washington Concert Opera performance of Massenet's Esclarmonde, you will be relieved to know that Mr. Driskill-Smith performed on a real organ, and better than that, an organ that was built in London in 1761 and brought to the New York Colony in 1763. The man who imported it, one Dr. Samuel Bard, became surgeon to President George Washington, whose portrait Gilbert Stuart was called from England to paint. There may be drawbacks to living in Washington, but the fact that this sort of cultural nexus is not uncommon here is not one of them.

Snetzler Organ, London, 1761This John Snetzler chamber organ has been loaned for the Gilbert Stuart concerts by the National Museum of American History. The thing is worth going to the National Gallery just to hear it played. It is about 7 feet tall and looks like a china cabinet, except that when you open the glass doors you see pipes and the top drawer opens out to reveal a small keyboard of a little over three octaves. Air is forced through the pipes by a billows, operated by a foot pedal on which the choir's other accompanist pressed her foot up and down. On this remarkable instrument, which sounds quite lovely considering its age, we heard William Boyce's Voluntary in D and a fugue by Handel in B minor (no other identifying information in the program). It has just enough variability in registration for Mr. Driskill-Smith, who is a talented organist, to give the impression of a trumpet call and soft answer in the Boyce piece.

This concert was very well attended, at least in its first half, and I was almost turned away because I arrived so late. As there were no program notes, Mr. Darlington gave some brief remarks at the beginning of each half about the works we were going to hear. The program naturally featured works for choir by the two European composers whose works were most popular in the New World in the 18th and 19th centuries, the namesakes of the famous Handel and Haydn Society founded in Boston in 1858. The choristers wore shirt and tie (long ties for the boys and bowties for the men) with black robes over their shoulders (not their liturgical cassocks and surplices). You could not have imagined, looking at them silent as they took their places in the West Garden Court, the sound they were going to make on the first word of Handel's coronation anthem Zadok the Priest. Even as accompanied by piano, the incredible crescendo up to the choir's massive homophonic entrance was very moving.

This is a piece that there is not much reason for a liturgical choir to perform in the United States (although, as Mr. Darlington observed, it has been heard at just about every British coronation ceremony since Handel composed it for George II), so I have not sung this piece in many years. (In fact, the last time I did perform it was for the 1993 concert for the Pope John Paul II I wrote about last week.) This rendition sent shivers down my spine and brought tears to my eyes. The same was true of the first choral piece on the second half, Haydn's The Heavens Are Calling from The Creation, sung in English, of course. The choir sang with admirable precision of intonation and blend almost without exception, and I thoroughly enjoyed pieces that we sing at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, like Thomas Attwood's Teach Me, O Lord and Maurice Greene's moving Lord, Let Me Know Mine End.

I was also happy to get to know some pieces that were new to me. William Billings composed his Lament over Boston in imitiation of Psalm 137 (136), which I wrote about last year at about this time, in relation to Verdi's paraphrase of the same text. I had never heard any of William Crotch's music, but I enjoyed his Epiphany anthem Lo, Star-Led Chiefs. A movement from Handel's Foundling Hospital Anthem (1749) featured an excellent countertenor soloist, and the concluding piece, a poem called "God Save Great Washington" sung to the tune of God Save the King, achieved its desired humorous effect. What else could have been better for an encore than a second performance of the program's first piece, Zadok the Priest?

The Gilbert Stuart concerts will continue with organist Stephen Ackert and the National Gallery Orchestra on April 17 (C. P. E. Bach, Haydn, Boyce), harpsichordist Penelope Crawford and organist Stephen Ackert on April 24 (J. C. Bach, Haydn, Benjamin Carr, and Clementi), and Dean Shostak on the instrument Benjamin Franklin invented, the glass armonica, on May 1. You will be able to hear the 18th-century John Snetzler organ at all of those concerts.

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