Jan Childress reached an epiphany in 1985 after hearing the Choral Arts Society of Washington for the first time.
“The sound was overwhelming,” the McLean soprano says. “I have been involved in choruses all my life in this city and other places. I listened to this sound and thought, This is where my voice belongs.’
“The next season, I auditioned for Norman.”
Norman, of course, is the ubiquitous Norman Scribner, the chorus master who founded the internationally acclaimed chorus 35 years ago. Its 19th annual Christmas concert-ball, “A Magical Royal Holiday Extravaganza,” takes place next Tuesday at the Kennedy Center.
The $250-a-ticket, black-tie event will provide major funding for the society’s 1999-2000 season, aptly titled, “The 20th Century: Our Legacy for the Future.”
“I didn’t want to do a millennium concert, tryin’ to get pieces that have to do with the final day of judgment or whatever,” Mr. Scribner says. “I thought it was appropriate to look back just on the 20th century, which has had such a bad rap.”
In February, for example, the society will perform Benjamin Britten’s “Cantata Misericordium”, Rachmaninoff’s “The Bells” and a commissioned work by Augusta Read Thomas.
“We love to return to the old things, but it’s exciting to do so many premieres of 20th-century music,” Miss Childress says. “It makes you realize how much great music comes out of this century.”
The Choral Society’s roots are planted firmly in emotional moments related to Washington and American history. The group performs a tribute every year to Martin Luther King. Its members also stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1968 to serenade Bobby Kennedy’s funeral cortege.
“I have to tell you, on a personal level, that was one of the most moving things we ever did because the whole thing was waaaay behind schedule,” Mr. Scribner says. “When [the cortege] finally got there, it was dark.
“And this thing stopping in the darkness, with just the street lights, and singing for the limousine with the family, was a little show of respect for Robert Kennedy before moving on to his final resting place. I’ll never forget that.”
National Symphony Orchestra Director Leonard Slatkin and predecessor Mstislav Rostropovich are among many who have appeared as guest conductors for the 180-member chorus. Numerous soloists have performed as well.
“This is one of the few hobbies I know of where you get to play regularly with the pros,” tenor Glen Howard says. “I’ve sung with Leontyne Price, Placido Domingo, Jessye Norman, Leonard Bernstein and it just goes on and on. If I could, I’d love to play with the Orioles, but they don’t allow it.”
Much of the society’s secret lies with Mr. Scribner, though he insists it’s the music. He ushers out the choir’s tremolo with politeness and efficiency, but he’s no pussycat. Mr. Howard calls him the best chorus preparer he has ever seen.
“He gets us to a point where we are razor sharp, not in just knowing the notes, but knowing the music and what the composer is trying to express,” Mr. Howard says. “When Norman looks at your section, you’d better respond. He’s like most great conductors: They make you give more than you think you have.”
Mr. Scribner freely admits to playing musical chairs to get the right blend. Miss Childress tags him “a master of the metaphor.”
“He does a fair amount of talking,” Miss Childress says, “and he’s very eloquent about what he wants to accomplish.”
Choir members must re-audition every year, with the director at the piano. Mr. Scribner says he looks for tone quality, intonation and general personal vitality and commitment “a sparkle in their eye, if you will.”
“Curiously enough, reading is not as much of an issue with me as it is with some other of my colleagues,” he says, “all of whom I respect greatly.”
He extensively tests the singers’ ability to hear tones within a chord. The society’s return rate hovers above 85 percent.
Still, Mr. Howard, a 20-year veteran, admits to audition panic.
“It’s not because Norman is scary or mean,” he says. “You know what’s riding on it no one wants to be cut and it’s a musical challenge to try to do your best with an extremely talented musician.” (Actually, Miss Childress adds, “It’s nice to have that private moment, just Norman, with him listening just to you and giving helpful suggestions.”)
Yet Mr. Scribner seeks to educate beyond the concert hall, hence the need for the benefit.
The society’s Meet-the-Artist program sends minority artists to seven D.C. schools for classes and workshops.
The society also publishes study guides for students and teachers and lends scores to school music departments.
This year’s holiday performances will feature Denyce Graves. “Arguably the world’s leading mezzo-soprano,” observes Mr. Scribner, who also calls her “a sweetheart” and “down-home.” Mr. Scribner says impressing an audience suits him, but moving them is his aim when he works with Miss Graves’ rich, luminous voice.
“It’s fathomless, tonally,” he says. “She sounds as if she could give more at any time. It’s very even throughout its range and extraordinarily intense, a gripping sound at any register.”
As in any concert, Mr. Scribner intersperses the Christmas show with selections featuring only the guest artist, the chorus or the orchestra.
That programming standard dovetails with his philosophy of the Choral Arts Society: providing spiritual uplift as well as unity.
“The whole concept of coming back in fresh really is pleasing to an audience’s ears if they haven’t heard the chorus in a piece or two,” he says. “You get a constant sense of freshness and renewal in the program.”