United States Various composers: New York Polyphony, Geoffrey Williams (countertenor), Steven Caldicott Wilson (tenor), Christopher Dylan Herbert (baritone), Craig Phillips (bass), Cathedral Choral Society / Michael McCarthy (guest conductor), Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC. 19.3.2017. (DS)
With the National Endowment for the Arts in precarious political standing, the opening remarks for this concert – which mentioned the institution’s funding for the Cathedral Choral Society – was followed by dense, resounding applause. Now marking its 75th anniversary, this cultural fixture of Washington, DC performs in the glorious Gothic setting of the National Cathedral – to packed rows of pews, down the nave and across the transept.
The Society’s guest was early and new music powerhouse, New York Polyphony, for a diverse afternoon including short works, ranging from mid-16th century Spanish Renaissance to young Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo. While the NYP quartet performed some works solo, guest conductor Michael McCarthy included others with the two combined ensembles, demonstrating a balance of talent, musical subtlety, and deep dedication.
New York Polyphony’s high quality delivery makes it hard to pick the best of its offerings, but Andrew Smith’s Amid a crowd of stars, based on a poem by Yeats, combined the luscious quality of a ballad with the classical twist of dissonant counterpoint, blended into a mesmerizing story. Commissioned to commemorate their 10-year anniversary in 2016, Vespers Sequence by Ivan Moody explored Orthodox chant traditions in a contemporary voice. Polyphony sings with a sophistication that honors each work’s essence. Their interpretation revealed Moody’s complex wanderings – sounds of liturgical chant, meanings of prayer, and the depth to which modern composition can reveal unexpected cultural relationships.
Together, the Choral Society and the quartet hit a jackpot with the grand 17th-century Miserere mei, Deus by Gregorio Allegri, using dramatic staging: baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert sang from the stone lectern high above the choir, while Geoffrey Williams (countertenor), Steven Caldicott Wilson (tenor), and Craig Phillips (bass) released their voices midway down the nave. Set to Psalm 51, the words “Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise” rang true in meaning from all angles of the world’s sixth largest Gothic space.
As McCarthy described it in his brief talk, the programming aimed for a “quasi-liturgical afternoon,” which couldn’t have been better visually symbolized than Herbert at the lectern. McCarthy’s own plainsong arrangement, Conditor alme siderum, included a ceremonial element: singers filed in carrying candles down the nave’s aisle as they sang the words, “Creator of the stars of night.”
The choral highlight, however, was The Spheres by Ola Gjeilo. Set around a simple Kyrie eleison, its tonal, overlapping layers floated into the cathedral rafters, and certainly touched a spirit or two.
Recently, the Cathedral Choral Society lost its longtime director, J. Reilly Lewis. In his honor, McCarthy finished with Elgar’s elegiac hymn that practically does the grieving on its own: Nimrod. And while we grieve the losses of the past, let’s hope the future remains safe under the auspices of the National Endowment for the Arts – for musical groups, composers, and those whose spirits they lift.