- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 7, 2006

It’s a Wednesday evening chorus rehearsal and conductor Norman Scribner, longtime artistic director of Washington’s Choral Arts Society, is reaching for a note.Or at least rearranging it.”No, that’s not it,” he says, and tells two men, who stand one behind the other, to change places. “You have to have the right kind of blend.”

A couple of permutations later, the note emerges pure and clean, just what Mr. Scribner was reaching for.

Some ear. What makes it more intriguing is the fact that this chorus before him is not just his own, but a melodic fusion of singers from Washington’s four largest choruses — the Choral Arts Society, the Washington Chorus, the Master Chorale of Washington and the Cathedral Choral Society — that will come together for a once-in-a-blue-moon event.

It’s the choruses’ presentation, along with the Children’s Chorus of Washington, the National Symphony Orchestra and eight soloists under Leonard Slatkin — tonight, tomorrow and Saturday at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall — of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, composed for an instrumental and vocal assemblage so large that it has been dubbed the “Symphony of a Thousand.”

And in the weeks leading up to this weekend’s choral spree, the choruses’ directors — Mr. Scribner, Robert Shafer of the Washington Chorus, Donald McCullough of the Master Chorale, J. Reilly Lewis of the Cathedral Choral Society and Joan Gregoryk of the Children’s Chorus — have worked in concert, so to speak, to prepare the singers, who will number more than 350.

Nuts and bolts sublime

What’s the occasion? The performance of the epic work celebrates the NSO’s 75th anniversary and marks the close of its subscription season. But it’s also the centerpiece of a five-day gathering of some 600 choristers and chorus managers from all over the United States and Canada, here for the 29th annual conference of Chorus America, an association of choral professionals.

Their conference, hosted by the Washington Chorus and marked by choral concerts at several Washington venues, began yesterday with a concert by the U.S. Army Chorus and Washington Bach Consort at St. Matthew’s Cathedral. It will culminate on Sunday in a free gala performance at the Music Center at Strathmore, where more than 300 singers and musicians will present music dating from the Revolutionary War to the present.

So it’s no wonder Washington is spending its choral capital and then some this weekend. Chorus America, which counts more than 1,600 choruses, individuals and businesses in its membership, provides help to choruses nationwide in marketing, administration, board development and fundraising, as well as in singing and conducting techniques.

“We’re all about the nuts and bolts of having a chorus,” says Ann Meier Baker, the group’s president and CEO.

In other words, they talk so the choristers can sing.

Sing they do. A Chorus America study several years ago found more than 250,000 choruses in operation across the country. Mrs. Baker estimates that nearly 28.5 million adults and children are regularly involved in some sort of chorus.

“It’s a really resilient art form,” she says.

A capital idea

Choruses are particularly popular in the nation’s capital, where a cornucopia of choral organizations — everything from great symphonic choruses to church and community choirs to smaller-scaled groups like the Woodley Ensemble or the Thomas Circle Singers — manages to offer something for just about everyone, from the casual shower singer to the most serious chanteuse.

“I joined practically as soon as I arrived in D.C.,” says Alexander Riley, a tenor with the Washington Chorus. By day, Mr. Riley works as a recruiter for the FBI.

“I don’t know of any other American city that offers as many choral opportunities,” he says.

That’s not surprising in a town that thrives on networking, because being in a chorus is about more than just the repertoire. Choral groups span vast ranges in age, occupation and ethnicity, and can embrace people with varying degrees of musical training and experience. They help develop social skills, community involvement and a striving for excellence.

“Chorus members are more likely to volunteer and participate in philanthropy,” Mrs. Baker says. “They’re more likely to do community service. Even if you don’t like choral music, you ought to value chorus members because they are so good for communities.”

As other avenues for social participation dry up, replaced by solitary activities like television viewing and the Internet, the chorus becomes an important mechanism for human interaction.

“I didn’t realize how much I missed singing,” says Chris Kanakry, from Bethesda, who has been on a bit of a choral hiatus while studying medicine at Duke University but is back in town to do the Mahler with the Washington Chorus.

The monumental Eighth

All of this energy, and then some, comes to a focus in the Mahler Eighth.

“The forces it requires are awesome,” says Mr. Shafer of the Washington Chorus. “It’s the most complex project I’ve ever been involved in.”

For this performance, the voices will come from everywhere, says Mr. Shafer, with choirs not just on the stage of the Concert Hall but stretching along the first tier sides.

Eight soloists — soprano Jane Eaglen, soprano Christine Brewer, soprano Christine Brandes, mezzo Stacey Rishoi, mezzo Sally Burgess, tenor Donald Litaker, baritone Obed Urena, and baritone Donnie Ray Albert — will be positioned at various points in the hall.

“We’re all excited in a way we don’t normally get,” says Mr. Slatkin, music director of the NSO. “This is a piece that’s bigger and better than life.”

Unlike most symphonies, this 1906 work is divided into just two parts, the first based upon an eighth-century German hymn, “Veni, Creator Spiritus,” and the second on the final scene of Goethe’s “Faust.”

“I think he struggled with his faith,” says Mr. Shafer, who notes that Mahler, a Jew, was essentially forced to convert to Roman Catholicism in 1897 in the face of growing anti-Semitism in Vienna. “I’m not sure he found comfort and deep relief in either.”

The Eighth was first performed in Munich in 1910, and received an overwhelmingly positive reception from a crowd of 4,000 influential individuals.

“The work itself is about individual identity, but also about the ability to blend,” Mr. Slatkin says.

“It’s very clear what kind of sound Mahler wants, but it’s the hardest of all his symphonies to make hang together musically. He knew it was not going to be a traditional or normal symphony, that it was going to be an event.”

Incipient panic

The well-traveled Mahler was known for both his composing and his conducting. In New York, he conducted at the Metropolitan Opera as well as the New York Philharmonic and New York Symphony and was well-known for his affinity for the works of Beethoven, Mozart, and Wagner. He led the New York Philharmonic here at the National Theater less than five months before his death in May 1911.

Trained as a pianist, he once quelled an incipient panic at the Imperial Opera in Vienna after the electrical system short-circuited, according to a New York Times article of the time — simply by striding over to the piano and playing “vigorously.”

But just preparing for the Mahler Eighth can cause some incipient panic on its own. It’s a work that is a good deal more difficult to sing than say, a Poulenc “Gloria” or a Handel “Messiah,” requiring doubling of parts and independent musical lines that appear and disappear like so many will-o’-the-wisps floating around the Concert Hall.

“I had to go through with a highlighter,” says Mr. Kanakry, showing his score. “I’ve never had to do that before.”

That’s not to mention the demands placed on the vocal soloists as well a pumped-up orchestra that by itself can threaten to overwhelm the stage of the typical music hall.

Talk about sonic boom. The forces required are so large, and the resultant mass so unwieldy, that most major symphony orchestras perform the Eighth only rarely. The NSO last performed the work in 1988. This is the first time in recent memory that members of four choruses have been employed.

“We hadn’t realized how difficult it would be to accommodate 300-plus singers,” says Washington Chorus Deputy Director Alison Combes, who has spent the past several months cajoling space from churches and schools that would allow at least most of the members of the assembled choirs and choruses to rehearse and perform together.

“And it’s an incredibly expensive production to put on.”

Mahler in the air

In a rare conjunction of blue moon and just the right alignment of stars, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will present Mahler’s other great vocal symphony, his Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection,” tonight, tomorrow and Sunday in Baltimore and on Saturday at Strathmore.

Joining the BSO are the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, the Morgan State University Choir, soprano Janice Chandler Eteme and mezzo Nancy Maultsby.

It’s the “Maestro’s Finale,” a grand farewell to departing Music Director Yuri Temirkanov, who began his tenure with the BSO in 2000 with the same work.

Mahler’s Second, says Mr. Temirkanov, is one of his favorite symphonies, “both musically and emotionally.”

Although the Second is more frequently performed than the Eighth, since it doesn’t require quite the enormous assemblage of the latter, the Second is another attempt by Mahler to answer the big questions of faith, life and hope.

To do so, the Second uses the massed forces of the chorus and soloists to offer its own counterpoint about the nature of redemption. It also contains more than a few nods to Beethoven. At least, that is what the program notes will tell you.

But don’t be so sure. When it comes to most music, there’s always something more than what the notes and text will say.

“If you look at any music from an emotional point of view, it will have a program inside,” says Mr. Temirkanov, who in the space of six short years managed to command a love from his musicians that far more voluble conductors have only hoped to achieve in many more years of working with their orchestras. “Very often what’s written down sounds silly.”

Because when it comes to music, especially vocal music, there is always something present that is quite simply, beyond words.

Of course, anyone who’s a member of a chorus knows that already.

Performancetimes, ticketinformation

WHAT: Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 8, “Symphony of A Thousand,” with the Washington Chorus, Cathedral Choral Society, Children’s Chorus of Washington, Choral Arts Society of Washington, Master Chorale of Washington, eight soloists and the National Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin

WHEN: 7 p.m. June 8, 8 p.m. June 9 and 10

WHERE: Kennedy Center Concert Hall, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue Northwest

TICKETS: $47-$83. All performances sold out. Please keep checking 202/467-4600 for donations or cancellations.

INFORMATION: 202/467-4600 or kennedy-center.org

WHAT: A Maestro’s Finale: Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection,” with the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, the Morgan State University Choir, two soloists and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under Yuri Temirkanov

WHEN: 8 p.m. June 8, 9, 10; 3 p.m. June 11

WHERE: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St., Baltimore (June 8, 9, 11); Strathmore Hall Music Center, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda (June 10)

TICKETS: $25-$75

INFORMATION: Meyerhoff Hall 410/783-8100 or baltimore symphony .org, Strathmore Hall 301/581-5100 or bsoatstrathmore.org

Songs made in U.S.A.

President Ulysses S. Grant once famously remarked that he knew just two tunes, one of them “Yankee Doodle” and the other not.

But there’s a lot more to American music, particularly American choral music, than just two songs. Just ask conductor, organist and choirmaster Philip Brunelle, conductor of the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers of Minnesota.

He will conduct a “kaleidoscope” of American vocal music, including “Yankee Doodle,” on Sunday at the Music Center at Strathmore for “America Sings,” the kickoff concert for the National Endowment for the Arts’ American Masterpieces Choral Initiatives project. The concert is the culminating event of the Chorus America conference.

“Sometimes people forget that there is a lot out there that is part of our heritage,” Mr. Brunelle says.

It’s a complicated history, one Mr. Brunelle hopes to explore at the Sunday concert.

By the 18th century, a recognizable American musical tradition was beginning to appear in urban centers like Boston and Philadelphia. To be sure, the sounds heard would have been very familiar to Europeans. In fact, Europeans composed most of the works performed.

Although still soundly grounded in an Old World musical sensibility, many composers on this side of the Atlantic began to add a uniquely American flair, and a mixture of ethnic traditions began to point the way toward a uniquely American sound.

William Billings, whose “New England Psalm Singer” appeared in 1770, gave familiar American place names — such as Chester — to the hymns, anthems and psalms he composed for four unaccompanied voice parts.

In the first part of the 19th century, Moravians brought sophisticated harmonies and the need to vocalize to parts of Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Traveling opera companies and minstrel shows allowed new melodies, like those of Stephen Foster, to circulate among the wider population, which then went home and sang them around the piano or in the neighborhood singing school.

Through it all, the music of black Americans provided depth, balance, and new notes and rhythms.

“We’re looking at composers who made a significant contribution to choral music,” says Mr. Brunelle. “Some are well-known, like Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. Others, like William Dawson or Harry Burleigh, may be less familiar.”

Just don’t expect a traditional concert.

“My idea of the program is just like a kaleidoscope,” says Mr. Brunelle. “It’s not going to be a formal, ‘next-you-will-hear’ sort of thing. We’ll move from one piece to another, with performers both in the house and on the stage. We want to celebrate the richness of America.”

Many of the composers featured in the event provide their own settings of familiar folk songs and spirituals.

“There is a wonderful heritage of folk songs,” Mr. Brunelle says. “Choral music is a real melting pot, a wonderful mixture of sacred and secular. And it’s the most popular form of music making that we have.”

Many making music

There’s a song in the Washington air this weekend thanks to Chorus America, whose annual conference at the Capital Hilton has inspired a raft of old-fashioned, lift-up-your-voices events.

The conference, “Capital Ideas,” runs through Sunday and features such keynoters as Ysaye M. Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock and Francisco Nunez of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City. Keynote sessions include Boston Pops Conductor Keith Lockhart. For more information on the conference, see chorusamerica.org.

Apart from the weekend’s Mahler spree and last night’s opening concert by the U.S. Army Chorus and the Washington Bach Consort at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, several chances remain to hear great vocal music. Here are details:

• National City Christian Church: 5 Thomas Circle NW. The Woodley Ensemble’s 20 singers, whose repertoire ranges across the eras but focuses on music of the Renaissance and the modern era, join with the 150 singers, aged 9 to 16, of the Children’s Chorus of Washington to present an hour-long concert of favorites. 3:15 p.m. June 10. Free. 202/822-6221 or woodleyensemble.org; 202/237-1005 or cchorus.homestead.com

• The Music Center at Strathmore: 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. “America Sings,” the NEH American Masterpieces Choral Initiatives Concert. Three hundred singers from local choruses and national ensembles in American favorites under Artistic Director Philip Brunelle, conductor of the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers of Minnesota, featuring also members of the Washington Chorus, the American Heritage Signature Chorale, the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the U.S. Army Chorus and Orchestra, the Third U.S. Infantry (Old Guard) Fife and Drum Corps and others. 2 p.m. June 11. Free, tickets required. 301/581-5100 or strathmore.org.

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