- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 19, 2006

Formerly known as the Capitol Hill Choral Society, the Washington Choral Ensemble presented a fascinating pairing of two very different elegiac Masses Saturday evening in St. Alban’s Episcopal Church on the National Cathedral grounds. In tune with the Lenten season, the ensemble performed Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly’s rarely-heard “Missa Brevis” and British liturgical composer John Rutter’s “Requiem,” separating the two with a solo organ work performed by the group’s music director, William D. Usher II.

While not a requiem, the Kodaly “Missa Brevis” is an often somber, contemplative work that breaks on occasion into triumphal peals of praise. Written for organ accompaniment during the depths of World War II, which ravaged Central Europe, it is a work of grief mixed with hope for a brighter future. Typical of Mr. Kodaly, the work is tonal, melodic and accessible, but is spiced with wrenching modernist harmonies that seem to underline the harsh realities of war.

The score is not overpoweringly difficult, but its vocal entry points and occasional dissonant harmonics pose challenges for a small chorus, most of which the Choral Ensemble negotiated smoothly, seemingly at one with the work’s decidedly Slavic atmosphere.

The atmosphere of Mr. Rutter’s “Requiem” is reminiscent of Gabriel Faure’s “Requiem,” which has become increasingly favored by choral groups in this area for its more peaceful approach to death and resurrection, as opposed, say, to the more bombastic requiems of Brahms or Verdi. Both Faure and Mr. Rutter avoid the hell, fire and brimstone of earlier requiems in favor of a more positive, peaceful journey of the soul to the hereafter.

Accompanied by the organ and a small instrumental quartet, the ensemble gave a quietly noble reading of the work, marred slightly by what seemed to be an incorrect entrance by the tenors in the midst of the “Sanctus.”

In both works, the soloists were superb, including baritone D. Raul West, tenor Philip Cave, alto Marjorie Bunday and soprano Katie Katinas, whose bell clear high notes gave the Rutter, in particular, an ethereal quality, particularly in the concluding “Lux aeterna” (“Eternal light”).

Between these two works, Maestro Usher performed Cesar Franck’s fiery and challenging “Choral No. 3 in A minor.” Alternating flashing passagework with majestically chromatic chordal pageantry, this is a work that exploits the many moods and colors of the Romantic organ. Mr. Usher produced a big, clean sound from the small but robust St. Alban’s instrument in one of the most compelling performances we’ve heard of this work to date.

Consisting of less than 20 voices, the Washington Choral Ensemble exhibited many of the strengths and some of the weaknesses one often encounters in groups of this size. Soloists and firsts were superb, and the group was well-rehearsed, although they occasionally neglected to focus on diction. Mr. Usher’s direction was clear and forceful, especially in the rhythmically thorny passages.

On the other hand, the ensemble could clearly use a few more male voices. An alto or two occasionally had to jump in to add some heft to the tenor line. And the basses — only three of them — sometimes got lost in the crowd. A few more gents would add to the warmth of the ensemble’s tone. Alas, aside from huge groups like the Cathedral Choral Society, good men who sing seem rather hard to find these days, as any parish music director will be quick to attest.

**MAXIMUM RATING:FOURSTARS

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