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The 18th Street Singers

Friday evening at Washington's First Trinity Lutheran Church, the 18th Street Singers offered a program called “In These, Our Darkest Hours” to a full house. Founded in 2004 by choral guru and Sen. Al Franken’s Legislative Director Benjamin Olinsky, the 44-voice choral ensemble brings many fresh faces to the Washington choral scene. Before plunging into the desolate wintry themes promised by the program’s title, the group sang Poulenc’s mysterious and challenging Quatre Motets Pour Le Temps de Noel. The choir held their pitch perfectly through the harmonically adventurous textures that ended merrily with “Gloria in excelsis Deo, alleluia.”

Overall the choir, singing unaccompanied, had a remarkably warm, resonant, and supported sound. The tenor and bass sections particularly had a rich, wide tone with neither edgy tension nor wobble. Their support in Mendelssohn’s Richte mich, Gott was most generous. The sound of the lower voices was so good that anything less than beautiful from the soprano and altos sections was most unfortunate, specifically scratched entrances here and there, and a general timidity in expressiveness. It was as if the soprano and alto sections' focus was weighted more toward sound production and technical considerations than musical goals beyond blending perfectly. This hindered the outcome of Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei, a choral version of his Adagio for Strings, which plodded shapelessly from note to note. One must have sympathy for the physical requirements of singers in a work such as this, when most listeners are used to hearing this piece performed by the orchestral forces of the Philadelphia Orchestra string section or eternal wind of a pipe organ.

Poulenc’s Un Soir de Neige was musically fluent, with treacherous intervals depicting “frozen feet” and “dead branches.” The alto section reinforced the chill with dark tonal hues that were most fitting, although it might have been more persuasive had the text been handled in a more meaningful way. It did not help the flow of the concert that the music was interrupted by absolutely incessant verbal program notes by no fewer than four people.

The rest of the program consisted of English language spirituals, folk songs, and most interestingly, the U2 song MLK ("Sleep, sleep tonight / And may your dreams be realized / If the thundercloud passes rain / So let it rain / Rain down on him / So let it be"). The clean-cut look of the musicians, all seemingly in their 20s and 30s, makes one assume that their membership cut their teeth singing a cappella in their Ivy days. MLK, with poetic soloists, inspired a tenderness from the chorus that was most moving. Keep your eye out for the 18th Street Singers as they continue to make a name for themselves.

This concert will be repeated tonight (January 21, 7:30 pm), at First Trinity Lutheran Church (501 4th St. NW).

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