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The Other Thursday Show: NSO and CCS at WNC

Ionarts guest contributor Lindsay Heller offers the following review.

Despite the recent lovely weather we have been enjoying here in Washington, everything was bright and beautiful at the National Cathedral, where the National Symphony Orchestra and Cathedral Choral Society joined forces for a concert in the annual Summer Music Festival. Virtually every seat was taken, and the audience clearly enjoyed this gem of a concert (and also probably really enjoyed the fact that is was free!).

The joint ensemble opened the program with Charles Gounod's Messe Solennelle de Sainte Cécile (Mass for St. Cecilia), and although this is a wonderful piece of music, the vocalists seemed as if they were struggling with the acoustics of such a live and large space. One of the highlights of the Mass was the Gloria, were a beautiful horn solo (played by NSO principal Martin Hackleman) ushered in the soprano soloists accompanied by a humming chorus. All of the mood changes here were as smooth as can be, and there were wonderful moments of intense Romanticism woven into the mixture. (After her big solo, however, soprano Jessica Swink kept looking increasingly bored with the production, and while sitting down, looked as if she was fighting the urge to doze off.) The best-known movement of the work, the Sanctus, unfortunately did not emerge with the memorable and graceful tenor solo because the tenor did not step up to the plate, so to speak. Tim Augustin sung in a very meek voice, and his lower register was completely garbled. Thankfully, the rejoicing of the chorus and the heroic sound the orchestra put forth saved the movement. (Well, we can discount the winds' intonation issues from being “heroic.”) The final movements—the Agnus Dei and the Domine Salvum—were beautifully done by both chorus and most of the orchestra, but much to my dismay slightly ruined by a sharp piccolo and flute duo, whose awful ringing note was thankfully subdued by all the clapping from the audience.

After the intermission the program became entirely orchestral, initiated by Francis Poulenc's Concerto in G minor for Organ, Strings, and Timpani. With the organ masterfully played by J. Reilly Lewis, I have to say this has become my new favorite Poulenc work. Although he is not my favorite member of Les Six (Milhaud and Honnegger are more my speed), this work aptly displays the sheer talent that was Poulenc. There are various sections laden with contrasting moods that are colored so well by the large chords brought forth by the solo organ and accompanied in the strings. This concerto contains so many different styles in its one broad movement that it would be a schizophrenic's musical paradise: one moment you can hear allusions to Dietrich Buxtehude and the North German early Baroque, and with the transition made by the organ, which ushers us in some jazzy section that leads into something that reminds you of the soundtrack to a classic black-and-white horror movie. You know, no one ever grows up thinking the organ is a “cool” instrument, but I have to say that last night made me look at the awesome organ in a whole new light.

Arguably the best-known piece on the program was Ravel's Pavane pour une infante défunte. The history of the work's title is kind of delightful, despite its rather morbid name. Ravel once told listeners to “not attach the title any more importance than it has. Do not dramatize it. It is not a funeral lament for a dead child, but rather an evocation of the Pavane that could have been danced by such a little princess as painted by Velázquez at the Spanish court.” The opening theme—wonderfully performed again by Martin Hackleman on French horn—immediately grabs the listener as each statement is made by the orchestra. Beauty just abounded in the National Cathedral last night as conductor Emil de Cou did what I think he does best: working with lyricism. The sound he poured out of that orchestra was nearly breathtaking, and the ironic thing is that after the first statement of the theme, it did not seem so weird to hear such a calming piece of music after a raucous organ extravaganza. Albeit a short piece of music, the build-up into the final fortissimo in the string section was magnificent, and the audience certainly showed their appreciation.

Not only acting as a spectacular ending to a brilliant concert, Benjamin Britten's A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra seemed to delight many of the children—young and old—some of whom did not look too happy before hearing this piece, as they probably were dragged to the concert by their eager parents.

Just after the end of World War II, Britten was approached by the British Ministry of Education to write a score for their film, Instruments of the Orchestra. Designed to introduce young listeners to the instruments of the modern orchestral ensemble, the seventeen-minute work is scored for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, Chinese wood block, castanets, whip, tambourine, triangle, tam-tam, xylophone, harp, and strings. Written in the form of a theme and variations, Britten composed a central theme based on a melody by the first great English composer, Henry Purcell. The piece consists of thirteen variations that are performed by all the different instrument “choirs” after the main theme is stated by full orchestra. Although it became an instant classic on its own, A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra was of course narrated for the film, but not narrated at this performance. (Perhaps to make up for that, though, was J. Reilly Lewis playing organ throughout, even though there is actually no organ part!) Needless to say, this was a magical showing of this great work, and it certainly brought back a lot of memories for me, having first played this piece in a concert when I was but a “young person.” The articulation was perfect, dynamics could not have been better, and the enthusiasm of the NSO most certainly transferred through to the audience.

The evening of course ended with a rousing standing ovation that was well deserved by the orchestra. What an amazing performance to have free and open to the public! I encourage all of you to take some time out of your busy lives so you can sit back and enjoy a wonderful summer program. There are only five concerts left in the Washington National Cathedral Summer Music Festival this month, and they are worth seeing. Please, do yourself a favor and enjoy something that is wonderful and free because that is a rare combination in this day and age.

See also the review by Daniel Ginsberg (Washington Post, July 23).

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