- The Washington Times - Monday, May 8, 2006

To celebrate its 10th anniversary, the Washington Women’s Chorus mounted a fine and challenging concert Sunday at the National Presbyterian Church, highlighting American poetry and Broadway and Tin Pan Alley classics while also rolling out the world premiere of a work the chorus had commissioned for this special occasion. The entire concert was recorded live for later release on CD.

Directed by founder and Artistic Director Donald Paul Richardson, the chorus consists of about 40 top-quality singers whose keen focus on the support and production of vocal sound is exemplary. Equally impressive is that they memorize much of their repertoire, allowing them to follow their director closely rather than fishing for the correct note.

The concert opened with Gwyneth Walker’s moving arrangement of E.E.Cummings’ popular poem “I thank you God for this most amazing/day,” which was followed by another arrangement of poetry, this time from Emily Dickinson. Set by James Mulholland for piano and French horn accompaniment, the three selected poems traversed the poet’s lonely and quirky inscape.

Mr. Mulholland’s thematic arrangements of the outer two — “Nobody Knows This Little Rose” and “Heart We Will Forget Him” — are quiet and contemplative, while the inner, scherzo-like setting of “So I Let Him Lead Me Home” is lively and quick. The chorus, with tight harmony and near-perfect diction, interpreted Dickinson’s enigmatic verses with great sensitivity.

The focal point of the program’s first stanza was clearly “Hannah’s Song,” written for the ensemble’s 10th anniversary on commission by New Zealand-born composer Katherine Dienes.

Nearly 30 minutes in length, the work, sung in Hebrew, is an adaptation of the joyous prayer of Hannah that appears in 1 Samuel — a hymn that almost certainly influenced Mary’s New Testament “Magnificat.” Scored imaginatively for female chorus accompanied by cello, saxophone and percussion (including a xylophone), the work, built on 11 biblical verses, alternates highly off-rhythmical shouts of joy with slower, more elegiac music. The compositions of American minimalist Steve Reich and 19th-century Sephardic dances from Spain were specific influences cited by the composer. But, Miss Dienes said, “my daughter, who’s also named Hannah, and her outgoing personality” clearly influenced the work.

The composition itself is wickedly complex. However, the chorus, assisted by soloists Maryann East (soprano) and Grace Gori (mezzo), tackled its myriad difficulties with enthusiasm and precision. Unlike many commissions that fade away over time, “Hannah’s Song” is likely to become a signature work for them. Indeed, they’ll be traveling to New Zealand to debut the work there next month.

After intermission, the chorus returned to showcase killer renditions of classic 20th-century American songs, including “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair” (from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific”) Rodgers and Hart’s “Bewitched,” and George and Ira Gershwin’s “Embraceable You.” They shifted with surprising ease into the jazz scales and off-rhythms of these snappy selections, aided and abetted by their terrific accompanist, Laurie Vivona Bunn.

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