- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 18, 2004

The Choral Arts Society of Washington presented its final series of 2003-04 concerts last weekend at Northern Virginia Community College’s Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall in Alexandria, highlighting the “Te Deum” of Giuseppe Verdi as well as a program of 20th-century American music.

Soprano Audra McDonald was the featured soloist in the American portion of the program, conducted by composer John Adams, who also led the ensemble in a performance of his own “Harmonium” (1981).

Under the baton of music director Norman Scribner, the ensemble began Friday’s performance with an exciting if occasionally uncertain rendition of Verdi’s late masterpiece, penned in 1893, when he was 80 years old.

The centerpiece of the society’s program, however, was clearly intended to be John Adams’ “Harmonium,” led by the composer himself. A curious amalgam of minimalism and other interesting bits, it has become one of the more popular classical pieces in an era when contemporary American composers are attempting to regain an audience either lost to rock music or alienated by the academy’s foolish fixation on pointlessly ugly modernist and postmodern experimentation.

The approach of minimalist composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich has been to break with the serialists and return to pentatonic Western traditions — but to accomplish this in bite-size pieces, working a single chord or two to death over a sustained period of time.

Mr. Adams takes a third way in “Harmonium.” Sung by the chorus to the poetry of John Donne and Emily Dickinson and accompanied by a large, percussive orchestra, the work shimmers and dances its way forward to gigantic climaxes and then settles back into tranquil flutterings. The music is not bound, as is much of Mr. Glass’, to a single, never-ending pattern. The palette, tempo and color frequently change. At times, the chorus follows the poetry as written, while at others, single words are repeated like a mantra. The overall effect is, at times, oddly like Gregorian chant masquerading as New Age music.

Mr. Adams’ work is not a traditionalist’s cup of tea, but it clearly is more accessible than most of the dross churned out by the previous generation of academic composers. It marks a healthy, long-overdue attempt to break away from a useless and rigid orthodoxy and strike out in new directions that don’t necessarily regard previous traditions as radioactive. The Choral Arts Society sang his extraordinarily challenging score with accuracy, determination and enthusiasm, further burnishing its reputation as one of Washington’s premiere vocal ensembles.

Between “Te Deum” and “Harmonium,” Miss McDonald, a three-time Tony Award-winning soprano, performed a set of American songs, including rarely heard works of Charles Ives orchestrated by Mr. Adams.

Mr. Adams conducted the set, which also included works by George Gershwin, Charles K. Harris (“After the Ball”), Hughie Cannon (“Bill Bailey”) and Irving Berlin.

Miss McDonald is a spectacular talent by any definition, and she knows how to sell a song. Her intonation and enunciation were impeccable, her enthusiasm infectious. She was at her best in her finely nuanced interpretation of Ives’ songs, which are based on traditional church hymns set against a complex backdrop of peculiarly eclectic dissonances. Her rendition of Ives’ setting of “Shall We Gather at the River” was perhaps the high point of this intriguing evening.



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