'Evensong' strikes a chord in Washington

The Baltimore Sun

No country for old men? Several composers would dispute that point, one of them being Dominick Argento. At 80, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Peabody Conservatory alumnus has added to his sizable work list a large, often affecting and expertly crafted score for soloists, chorus and orchestra.

Evensong: Of Love and Angels, conceived as a memorial to his wife, was commissioned by the Cathedral Choral Society, which premiered it Sunday afternoon at Washington National Cathedral.

Argento, on hand to receive an enthusiastic response, considered his creative life over when his spouse of 51 years, Baltimore-born soprano Carolyn Bailey, died in 2006. But Cathedral Choral Society music director J. Reilly Lewis gently wore down that resistance.

The intensity of both love and loss inform virtually every measure of Evensong. With scriptural verses and texts by Argento, the piece delivers a message of faith in the power of love to heal those "afraid to face the darkness," as well as to comfort the survivors.

That message is underlined in the central movement, a homily for soprano. It is not an entirely effective section, too wordy for an aria, too melodic for a sermon. The sole spoken movement that precedes it, a reading from the Gospel of John about the healing pool of Bethesda, doesn't quite mesh with the rest, either.

But these are small qualms in light of the expressive weight of the nine-movement score, which begins hauntingly with a "Threnody" that includes plaintive solos for oboe, viola and wordless voice (the latter like a beckoning from the other side). The choral writing, especially in the a cappella Psalm 102, is richly harmonized in a conservative, yet fresh-sounding, manner.

In the second movement, shimmering orchestration surrounds a treble voice (representing an angel) in dialogue with the chorus (representing the afflicted). The effect avoids preciousness.

The treble's return in the penultimate movement to deliver what Argento calls a "Prayer/Lullaby" is musically inspired and emotionally stirring. Supported by subtle orchestration, the melodic line here achieves eloquence by the simplest of means, the most unassuming of curves.

This blessing on "those who work, or watch or weep" and those slipping past the bonds of life is the profound heart of Evensong, and it was exquisitely, disarmingly sung by Nelson James LePard Reed. Time seemed to stop in the cavernous space, where the light was fading in the intricate stained glass windows, as if on cue. The purity of the boy's tone and the clarity of his diction (lovely rolled r's included) communicated deeply.

Elizabeth Futral, the stellar soprano soloist who could be seen wiping away tears as she listened to the boy's song, rose to considerable heights herself. Whatever my reservations about the sermon movement, she certainly delivered it with arresting beauty of voice and phrasing.

Except for a couple of uneven entrances, the chorus excelled, producing a smooth, warm sound. The orchestra also did admirable work; Gita Ladd's cello solo in the "Meditation" sang out nobly. Lewis led with great sensitivity and unmistakable affection.

The concert opened with a strong account of Mozart's Solemn Vespers, enriched considerably by Futral's ethereal solo in the Laudate Dominum passage. Unavoidable fuzziness in the reverberant acoustics mattered little.

Chaplin, BSO shine

Marin Alsop's flair for rhythmic precision served her well over the weekend when she guided the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with pinpoint timing through the soundtrack to Charlie Chaplin's funny/sad masterpiece City Lights, while the film was pro- jected above the stage.

The musically untrained Chaplin is credited with composing the score, although he clearly relied on others. There are a few unconvincing moments (the dance hall scene is propelled by what sounds like a Prussian fight song), but most of the music strikes just the right chords, and Alsop was alive to all the expressive nuances Saturday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

The BSO turned in a polished performance, with the solo string players achieving particularly impressive lyricism.

Even in our DVD/HD/Blu-ray age, there's nothing like the electricity from the fusion of silent movies and live musical accompaniment, with a big crowd hanging - as Saturday's was - on every image. Alsop and the BSO should consider offering an annual excursion into the marvelous sound of silents.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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