- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2003

The Choral Arts Society of Washington, under the able baton of Music Director Norman Scribner, presented one of the most intriguing and well-balanced musical evenings of the year Friday at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

Its season-finale concert featured one world premiere, American composer James Grant’s symphonic choral work, “Such Was the War,” paired with Maurice Durufle’s moving but infrequently performed “Requiem.”

Currently serving as composer-in-residence to the Bay-Atlantic Symphony in Bridgeton, N.J., Mr. Grant is remembered in Northern Virginia for his sprightly 1993-1996 stint as a popular lecturer and composer-in-residence for the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra. Then, as now, he devoted himself to creating a body of work broadly accessible to audiences outside academia, although he is a former academician himself. “Such Was the War” is clearly his most stunning compositional achievement to date.

Conceived on a grand, neo-Romantic scale and imaginatively scored for baritone soloist, chorus and large orchestra (including a battery of percussion and a small set of English handbells), Mr. Grant’s “Such Was the War” was commissioned by the Choral Arts Society and received its first performance at this concert.

This ambitious new work sets to music a selection of Walt Whitman’s writings from the Civil War, focusing on his letters, poetry from “Leaves of Grass” and prose from “Specimen Days.” Mr. Grant groups these poetry and prose excerpts thematically, creating in three choral movements what amounts to a secular requiem reflecting on war and its aftermath; narrated by a poet who spent much of that conflict in the Washington area tending to wounded soldiers from both sides.

Mr. Grant has tinkered with Whitman’s prose and poetry here and there, dropping some of his lengthy but occasionally tiresome and musically uninteresting “catalogues” in order to focus his musical interpretation on the human drama conveyed in the words. In this work, the composer has created an impressive marriage of poetry and music that signifies a real triumph of modern American tonalism over the tyranny of the 12-tone row.

“Such Was the War” is a work of outstanding power and breadth of emotion. It celebrates freedom while, like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, also remembering its cost. It is a work that in these difficult times is free from obvious political cant.

Influences on the piece are many, and Mr. Grant certainly makes passing musical references to Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” particularly in the recurring refrain from “Beat, Beat Drums” with its powerful battery of percussion and surging brass supporting the chorus at full throttle. Mr. Grant also displays his own individuality here with frequent, surprising modulations and challenging vocal slides for the chorus.

Breaking with now-fashionable but bloodless minimalism, Mr. Grant frees himself from postmodern constraints and lets the emotions, both tender and violent, fly. He is not afraid of melody, nor is he afraid to take a musical stand in favor of art that has meaning.

The chorus and baritone David Arnold were obviously enthusiastic about this strenuous work and performed it brilliantly. Glitches were rare, although Mr. Arnold experienced slight difficulty in achieving the tenor range near the end of the work; this is an exceptionally cruel vocal challenge after nearly an hour of nonstop singing.

“Such Was the War” will never win favor with the New York and academic critical community, for it speaks directly to the public without condescension. It is a splendid piece of choral writing that absolutely deserves a place in a repertoire that has been parched for new pieces worth performing in the past half century.

After the intermission, the ensemble, once again with David Arnold and with the addition of mezzo-soprano Ellen Rabiner, joined forces in a cleanly read, touching performance of Durufle’s (1902-1986) “Requiem.” Counterbalancing Mr. Grant’s more robust work, this was a nice bit of programming on Mr. Scribner’s part, pairing what is essentially a secular requiem with a religious one based loosely on traditional Gregorian chant but imaginatively soaring beyond it.

Relatively subdued for such a piece, Durufle’s work nonetheless achieves moments of high drama, particularly in the “Sanctus” and in the sudden surge that marks a brief excerpt of the “Dies Irae.” But it is perhaps most memorable for the way in which it concludes. In its final bars, the music literally seems to breathe its last, gently yielding up its spirit. The ensemble’s interpretation of the work was quietly masterful.

This Choral Arts Society concert was a highly creative “think piece” program reflecting on war and its aftermath and the meaning of life and death, particularly apropos in light of the most recent senseless carnage in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Casablanca, Morocco; and Israel. It proved a thoughtful and sublime conclusion to the ensemble’s current season.

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