- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 9, 2002

The Choral Arts Society of Washington opened its 38th season at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall this past Sunday with a stirring, if occasionally enigmatic, performance of Sir Edward Elgar's massive oratorio, "The Dream of Gerontius." Conducted by music director Norman Scribner, the ensemble's choral and orchestral forces were joined by mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby, bass-baritone Gary Relyea, and tenor Anthony Dean Griffey.

Elgar based his turn-of-the-20th-century oratorio on Cardinal John Henry Newman's influential religious poem, "The Dream of Gerontius," which chronicles the journey of a soul from the agonies of death into the mystical wonders of eternity. The work is reputedly a favorite in Great Britain, but it is rarely performed here and it's easy to understand why. Both Newman's didactic poetry and Elgar's setting of it are esoteric in the extreme, and at times the composer's approach to the subject is downright stodgy.

Whether dealing with death itself or with the soul's brief encounter with the Almighty, Newman's poetry and his reasoning are excessively careful and ecclesiastically correct according to Catholic doctrine. This is teaching poetry, rather than verse that aspires to visionary excitement and religious ecstasy always unpredictable and dangerous from a theological standpoint.

Newman's caution here was, perhaps, the result of his being a convert to Roman Catholicism controversial in 19th century England and feeling a need to observe the exact letter of church teachings in his writings. Keeping the imprimatur strictly in mind, Newman's poem explores immortality with a calculated ambiguity meant to inspire his flock but not to lead them astray with idle theological introspection.

Elgar's music captures the essence of Newman's overly nuanced religious epic, putting a small subset of the verses to music to convey a comprehensive sense of the whole, but this does not lead to the kind of grand sonic fresco that will inspire an audience of skeptical Americans to visualize a mystical union with the Almighty. Indeed, the sturm und drang of our passages from life to death to immortality were dealt with far more dramatically in Richard Strauss' intense tone poem "Death and Transfiguration" and in Mahler's epic Symphony No. 2 ("Resurrection"), which startlingly transmogrifies the traditional Christian endgame into a last judgment without a judge. Both works by Elgar's contemporaries have achieved lasting places in today's concert halls.

Elgar's interpretation of "Gerontius," like Gabriel Faure's quiet, contemplative "Requiem" which has experienced a significant revival in recent years focuses on peace rather than strife, eternal life rather than the finality of death, and proves in some ways a welcome antidote to the emotional ferocity of late romanticism. With the possible exception of a halfhearted attempt to portray a pack of confused and somewhat fearsome demons, "Gerontius" focuses primarily on the humble soul's desire to achieve final worthiness before taking its place among the celestial choirs. It is a work decidedly short on Straussian hubris.

Nearly two hours long, "Gerontius" requires a large orchestra, an organ, and massive choral forces, which all are employed judiciously in this work, rarely erupting into full volume. Given the nature of his vision, the composer generally favors subtle choral and orchestral colors over sheer bombast. This creates special challenges for the chorus, which must carefully calibrate its sound and its musical attacks rather than blast away at top volume, which is always easier to do.

The Choral Arts Society really seems to have done its homework on this piece. Well-rehearsed, well-coached, and well-conducted, they offered a sensitive, wonderfully subtle performance of this difficult work. Diction did suffer occasionally, but it can be difficult to maintain consistency in this area with such a large number of voices frequently singing in complex counterpoint. Particularly notable in this performance was the choirboy-like sound achieved in several passages by a small subset of women choristers.

The soloists were uncommonly good and well-matched to their roles. Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, a last-minute substitute for the ailing Stanford Olson, stepped in seamlessly. He proved startlingly effective in the dual roles of the dying old man Gerontius, and later his questing soul.

Mr. Griffey's diction was impeccable, his grasp of the role profound. Only one or two slight verbal miscues provided any clue that he might not have been rehearsing this role for some months.

In lesser roles, mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby and bass-baritone Gary Relyea also were inspired. Miss Maultsby, as the Angel, genially guided the soul of Gerontius through the perils and pitfalls of his celestial journey, and her mellow, husky voice was quiet and reassuring throughout. Mr. Relyea, first as the priest and later as an Angel of Agony, was clear and forceful even against the dense fabric of Elgar's substantial orchestra.

The modest-sized orchestra performed well for Maestro Scribner. However, given the heavy texture of the work, it might have been nicer to have had a few more violins in the mix to lighten the color a bit. This is not a major quibble. Perhaps economics or space considerations ruled this out.

On the whole, it was a delight to hear this interesting and somewhat atypical Elgar work. Like Gabriel Pierne's sublimely weird "La Croisade des Enfants" ("The Children's Crusade") first revealed to Washington audiences a few seasons ago by Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra this is a work that is worthy of being heard even if it has difficulty transcending the cultural barrier of the Atlantic.

It is noble and at times inspiring and provides numerous opportunities for an excellent chorale to demonstrate its considerable talents. Yet, due largely to its arcane nature, it is not quite the kind of work that will find its way into the regular repertoire of most American musical ensembles, but it will continue to be only an infrequent pleasure on these shores.

The Choral Arts Society will next perform Dec. 15-20 in a series of Christmas concerts at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall featuring renowned soprano and local girl Alessandra Marc. For tickets and information, call (202) 244-3669.


****

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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