‘Made in America: Celebrating American Choral Music’ at The Kennedy Center

FOUR STARS
“Made in the USA”: for generations, assurance that the product we were about to enjoy was produced upon the great land mass containing the contiguous 48, also known with patriotic pride, devotion and affection as America. That there has been a telling expansion in recent years in the meaning of the term, not only numerically but culturally and linguistically, was brought home musically to the large and enthusiastic Kennedy Center audience at Wednesday night’s Concert Hall program.

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Indeed, the concept of expansion was literally embodied in the combined forces of three large choruses, which joined in rousing celebration of the choral tradition in America. (The concert also served as opening night of the North American 2014 Chorus America Conference.)

The program began with five spirituals, conducted energetically and precisely by Washington Chorus Director Julian Wachner, their arrangements ranging from the contemporary (Diedre Robinson, Moses Hogan, and Stanley Thurston) to the contemporaneous (William L. Dawson). “Ain’a That Good News” demonstrated a mastery of dynamics, the song ending in a satisfying crescendo of explosive sound that left ears and rafters ringing. “Steal Away,” a rumination on death, offered a swift shift in mood and concomitant diminution in tone, with a contemplative, hum-like piano in the lower notes.

Again shifting emotional gears, “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord” was peppy, bouncy, joyous, the sounds clear and true, the ending top notes a resounding, exhilarating, exhilarated fortissimo. “Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley” was somewhat less successful, principally pitch-wise, both for the (otherwise clear and true) male soloist and for the chorus, in both cases noticeably but briefly. “Ezekiel Saw de Wheel” closed the spiritual selections with another unified, ringing high note.

The next section started with three songs sung by the Children’s Chorus of Washington, who entered the stage crisply decked out in grey slacks or pleated grey skirts, white long-sleeve shirts or blouses, red vests, and black ties. The first number, Stephen Paulus’s “Day Break,” seemed like a warm-up; if so, it was an effective one: Andrea Ramsey’s “Be Still,” from Psalm 46, had the audience cheering and demanding that the singers and their conductor (and founder) Jean Gregoryk take three bows. And with good reason: the singers, mostly pre-teen or early teens, exhibited a mature, professional command of dynamics, the top notes soft, crystalline, and immaculately supported.

“Witness,” by Paul Caldwell and Sean Ivory, is a powerful testament: a passionate avowal and command to speak out against genocide, particularly its impact on children. Unfortunately, the tessitura was too high for the chorus (and perhaps for any chorus), who strained audibly to articulate the words to allow the song’s urgent message to have its intended impact.

“Lincoln,” a world premiere composition by Armando Bayolo, Founder and Artistic Director of the Great Noise Ensemble (which would join with the other two choruses later in the program), was commissioned by Maestros Wachner and Tucker to demonstrate “the multiculturalism of compositional voices working in America today”; Bayolo was born in Puerto Rico of Cuban parents. The piece, set to a poem by Vachel Lindsay, often called the father of modern “singing poetry,”prefigured  with its electric guitar accompaniment the second half of the program, Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. Bayolo, who was in the audience, was called up from the audience to accept their applause.

“Ashes,” a profoundly moving piece by American composer Trevor Weston, brought the adult and children’s choruses together in a counterpoint of grief, the melancholy strains of the children pushing against the adults’ ever-rising tide of agony, its clashing harmonies ebbing to a Boïto-like buzzing, reminiscent of the Cherubs in the Mefistofele Prologue; as if the cherubs have grown up, and become hardened, deadened to the pain of reality. The urgent refrain “Hear my prayer,” repeated by the adults onstage, was echoed by the Children’s Chorus, standing in the audience, in an innocent, plangent echo. Weston was called up to the stage, and was welcomed warmly by the appreciative audience.

“Cricket, Spider, Bee,” by Michigan-born composer Elena Ruehr and originally commissioned by Wachner for Boston University’s Marsh Chapel in 1995, is a choral piece accompanied by harp, timpani, percussion, and string orchestra; at the Kennedy, there were no strings, but the “percussion” included a xylophone, which syncopated with the timpani.

An interesting piece independent of the poem: while the harp starts out delicately, it becomes forcefully percussive, as if trying to imitate the shattering timpani; in effect, utterly and perplexingly upending the verses’ graceful simplicity. (That said, the musicians were excellent.) The chorus, for its part, was compelled to keep repeating at one point, in stridently loud shouts, “make a prairie,” the composer’s means of ostensibly either illustrating or ignoring Dickinson’s gentle observation, “To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee.”

Wachner’s “Jubilate Deo” also employed the percussion, timpani and harp, who no doubt did their jobs well; the music was so forcefully 20th-century discordant, this listener regrettably couldn’t tell. The chorus was chaos, again no doubt with full intent and fidelity to the score, and on that account, probably successful in realizing the composer-conductor’s vision.  Wachner urged the musicians on ferociously, looking for all the world like Bernstein—of whom he is an admitted admirer—conducting Shostakovich. And then … the children’s chorus entered, and the score settled into an angelic, harmonic tonality, with celestial harp accompaniment. The piece ended with an invigorating climax, the chorus and instruments working in harmony, both figurative and musical.

Rodrick Dixon performs with The Choral Arts Society of Washington and The Washington Chorus. Photo by Shannon Finney.
Rodrick Dixon performs with The Choral Arts Society of Washington and The Washington Chorus. Photo by Shannon Finney.

If Lenny was there in spirit in the first half of the program, he was there in “spiritual” in the second, when Wachner ceded the podium to his co-conductor, Choral Arts Society Artistic Director Scott Tucker, for a concert performance (adaptation by Doreen Rao) of Bernstein’s Mass.  Commissioned by the Kennedy family in 1971 to inaugurate the opening of a national cultural center to honor the memory and legacy of the late president, as written, Mass, according to one commentator, “ultimately required over 200 performers, including choirs, soloists, rock combos, bands, an orchestra and the Alvin Ailey dance troupe.”

Rao’s concert version retains several essential elements of the original, including the opening antiphon (Kyrie eleison) and closing “Pax: Communion,” and the solo “Sing God a Simple Song,” which sets a mood and an aura of open-heartedness. It also omits in whole or in part sections that are, arguably, equally essential. The soloists excelled in different areas, Madeline Apple Healey’s exquisitely pure coloratura in the Kyrie complemented by Rodrick Dixon’s frank, friendly demeanor and Broadway-toned tenor (for purposes of the section) in “Sing God a Simple Song.”  They were complemented in turn by the Children’s Chorus, which had a fine feel for the piece’s jazzy pulse.

In places, Mass evokes West Side Story: the harsh syncopation of “Lord, I could go confess good and loud” of “Confession,” the “Jet Song”; the beginning of “Meditation,” Tony and Maria’s heartbreakingly hopeful “Somewhere.” In the “Gloria tibi,” the kids became the focus of both the conductor and the tenor, with Tucker mouthing the words to them for emphasis (meticulous in this regard, he also visually articulated the final “n” in “Amen” for the adults) and Dixon engaging them with humorous gestures, to which they responded with soundless giggles.

The chorus seized full hold of the Gloria in Excelsis and “Half of the People,” which Dixon followed with a vibrant “I Believe in God” whose final top note rang with a clarion call. In a further example of the piece’s sometimes jarring eclecticism (and the singer’s versatility), next came the gentle, mellifluous “The Lord’s Prayer,” sung in sustained, soaring head voice. “I Go On” continued in this mode, then subsided, and gradually ascended to a more human expressiveness; the lines “When my spirit falters” were achingly emotional, and deeply stirring.

The Sanctus, a mix of Latin (“Benedictus qui venit . . .”), English (“Mi. . . Mi. . . Mi alone is only me”) and Hebrew (“Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh Adonai ts’vaot”), was at once melodic  and resoundingly percussive.  It progressed to the Agnus Dei, which counterintuitively takes us back musically to the Great White Way. The final section, the “Pax: Communion (Secret Songs),” featured a towheaded soloist, a boy of about 12, who did a commendable job with the “Lauda, Lauda, Laudate Deum.” He was joined by Dixon in a melodious duet, their voices blending pleasingly; then, by all three choruses, the soprano’s return in a passage that should have been, given her demonstrated skills, an opportunity to once more thrill us with exquisiteness, sounding instead almost childlike.

Was this intentional? Perhaps. It would not be an unfitting (but fittingly unexpected) coalescence of the youthful innocence and adult awareness whose tension is implicit, so musically, emotionally and intellectually independent are most of the components of this Mass. “Sing God a secret song,” this final section begins; “Sing God a simple song,” the Mass itself began.  Secret, simple: what children cherish, and adults recall most fondly of being children. “And a little child shall lead them.”

Tho the Biblical passage alludes not, as is often thought, to a child’s innocent wisdom, but to the peace that will come to the world and enable a child to lead wild animals without fear, it, too, is fitting here: at the end of Mass, the composer’s own recorded voice enjoins us, “The mass is ended; go in peace.”

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, and no intermission.

Made in America was performed on June 11, 2014 at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts -2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For future events, visit their performance calendar.