In performance: British choir festival
British choir training resonates at National Cathedral
by Alfred Thigpen
Apart from Sunday's British Choir Festival at Washington National Cathedral, where can a work scored for an unimaginable 40 vocal parts enjoy a live performance? The drawing card, however, was not Thomas Tallis's "Spem in Alium," but rather the selection of ensembles: The Choir of Washington National Cathedral, New York's Choir of St. Thomas Church, and The Choir of New College, Oxford. All three groups have British directors: Michael McCarthy, John Scott and Edward Higginbottom, respectively. It showed.
Traditionally all male, the requisite British "cathedral" choir sound is bell-like, utilizing minimal vibrato, impeccable intonation and a textually driven sense of motion. As the National Cathedral Choir demonstrated, this can be achieved with the iconoclastic addition of female trebles, notably on the chant-like and eloquent dialogue in Moore's "All Wisdom Cometh from the Lord." Bruckner's "Ave Maria," however, became more of a workshop demonstration of extreme dynamic contrast than coherent prayer.
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Unmistakably drilled in the English system, John Scott's singers nevertheless possess a sound that is American in its firepower yet capable of remarkable subtleties ranging from Mendelssohn's gracefully shaded syllables to the imitative trumpet calls of Vaughan Williams's "Valiant-for-Truth." St. Thomas's overall product -- its clarity in particular -- now rivals that of St. Paul's, London, during Scott's tenure there.
While the British system of singing can be taught convincingly to Americans, New College, Oxford had the distinct advantage of being born into it. Their trebles were youngest and their choir the smallest, but every note was more created than sung and every phrase colorfully painted. Higginbottom took the scant seven words of James MacMillan's "Christus Vincit" and seemingly altered the acoustics of the cathedral's massive nave into something intimate if not otherworldly.
-- Alfred Thigpen
April 20, 2010; 6:33 AM ET
Categories: local reviews
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