Monday, December 21, 2015

Washington: Choral Capital of the World

End-of-the-year holiday season is paradise time for choral music lovers in Washington D.C. There is hardly a concert hall, church or school that does not offer a Christmas concert, musical, oratorio or some other choral performance. It’s hard to decide whether to attend a Messiah sing-along, or a concert of favorite carols, and even harder to decide which group to chose - the Washington Chorus, Washington Bach Consort, Washington Men’s Camerata,  Heritage Signature Chorale, Zemer Chai, Gay Men’s Chorus, Capitol Hill Chorale, or......

From the endless list of local choirs, my longtime favorite choice was the Choral Arts Society of Washington under the leadership of Norman Scribner.  For close to half a century, he was the heart and soul of that massive chorus that gave about 8 concerts a year, regularly marking Martin Luther King's Day, Easter and Christmas. Despite the regularity, and many of the same popular numbers, Scribner managed to offer a completely new performance for each of those occasions year after year, after year. 


My favorite were Christmas concerts, which always included a sing-along of carols, but the focal point was always a selection of holiday pieces from a foreign country.  Scribner organized these concerts in collaboration with embassies - and there is no shortage of those in the U.S. capital.  He told me in an interview that the diplomats usually organized a fund-raising party to help cover the expense of the visiting artists.

One of the most memorable for me was the concert featuring Spanish music, which I covered for a VOA radio feature all those many years ago.  It included a Spanish guitar player and castanete artists Carmen de Vicente.  She produced pure magic on castanetes and I can hardly remember anything else but her performance from that evening.  Later she told  me that her instrument is much more versatile than people think and that she can play Bach and Mozart on castanetes.  Unfortunately, no recording that I am aware of was made that evening and so with time the event turned into one of these indelible ethereal memories, all the more precious because they cannot be reincarnated.  But here is another example of de Vicente's artistry:


The Choral Art Society's other memorable concert was the 2011 Holiday Treasures from Russia made in collaboration with the Russian Embassy.  No fund-raising was necessary as the Russian government wanted to impress the Washington public and paid for a grand performance. In addition to the soloists, the Washington Choral Art Society was joined by 80 members of the Ural Philharmonic Orchestra led by Dmitry Liss.  They performed the Dance of the Tumblers  from the ballet Snegurochka and the walz from the opera Eugene Onegin.  Soprano Iirna Shiskova sang Bach and Gerchaninov's lullaby as well as Schubert's Ave Maria. On the last evening , the Ural orchestra also played the complete Scherezade, an additional 45 minutes to the program. Russian contributions might have outranked those of France, Germany, Belgium, Finland, Singapore and Alaska, but for me, no soloist in Scribner's Christmas concerts ever outranked Carmen de Vicente.  

At about the same time as the Holiday Treasures concert, Russian tycoon Vladimir Potanin donated $5 million to the Kennedy Center to draw Washington's attention to the Russian art beyond The Nutcracker and the nesting dolls. 

So the art benefited from politicking.  Regardless, Maestro Scribner was proud of his internationally flavored concerts.  The sing-along selections  always included Silent Night because the song is known internationally and he wanted at least one strophe sung in the language of the country that was featured in the program.  Russia, of course sent an expert to transliterate its Cyrillic text into the Latin alphabet and help the audience with pronunciation. "It had not always gone that smoothly, Scribner told me.  At the Czech-themed concert several years before, Ambassador Petr Kolar undertook the role of the linguist.  "He entertained the audience with a pretended stage fright, saying he had never taught Czech to such a large classroom.  Then he took the microphone to sing Silent Night in Czech and could not find the right pitch," Scribner recalled.

"After his performance he turned to me and asked if I had any objections to his singing. The audience burst into laughter and clapping and so the worst number of the evening had the most applause.  The Washington Post wrote that with Kolar in the program we did not need Santa Clause, fake snow or Rockettes."

That conversation, my second one with Scribner, took place four years ago.  The maestro retired the following year and died unexpectedly in March of this year.  I attended only one concert conducted by his successor Scott Tucker and - a solid rendition of Bach's Mass in B.  But I realized that for me the Choral Arts Society had become a different group - still good, still strong, but like the same body with a different soul.

In 1963, the National Symphony Orchestra asked Scribner to assemble a choir to sing Handel's Messiah - for Christmas of course. "Usually they would invite three or four big church choirs to sing. I suggested to audition each singer individually because church choirs can have good and bad singers and we needed the best," Scribner told me in the interview. "Of some 500 people that auditioned, we chose 120. That Messiah was so successful that we decided to keep the group together and perform regularly," he said.

Norman Scribner
The chorus founded 50 years ago by Scribner, grew from 120 to 180-190 members. "Each year some people leave and new ones come, infusing fresh blood into he group,"  he said. Under Scribner, the all-volunteer Society came to give its regular concerts in the United States and in addition performed overseas. It sang in venues such as St. Paul's Cathedral in London and Notre Dame in Paris, often with the world's top orchestras.  The 1993 concert in Moscow's Red Square attracted 100.000 people, including President Boris Yeltsin. In 2011 alone, the group sang in Austria, France and Japan. It was directed by celebrity conductors such as Valery Gergiev, Lorin Maazel, Leonard Slatkin, Antal Dorati, Leonard Bernsten and Christoph Eschenbach. It commissioned new works such as Seven songs for Planet Earth by Finland's Olli Kortekangas. Its recordings include Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky, Rachmaninov's Vespers and Mahler's 8th Symphony, and a Grammy award for its 1996 recording of John Corigliano's Of Rage and Remembrance.

The maestro told me all this was possible thanks to the professional-caliber volunteer singers who spend hours of their free time rehearsing, traveling and performing.  He said Washington has a huge pool of excellent singers, many of them well educated single people who come to work in the nation's capital and want to do something meaningful in their spare time.  

"There have been weddings and divorces among members of our chorale," said Scribner.  "But most importantly, " he said, "a lot of these people that come here simply like to sing and have good musical education."  And so there are many choral groups. Some perform regularly, others meet from time to time.  Some are connected to a school or an institution, others are formed spontaneously by people of similar interests. Then there are military chorales.

"Washington has more choral groups than any other American city and probably more than any city in the world.  In the musical circles we call it the choral capital of the United States," said Scribner.

Choral Arts Society in Moscow's Red Square
Is there a lot of rivalry? "Not at all," said Scribner. "Each choir has its own unique sound and each sings a different repertoire. We all get along well and we often sing together." Hmmm... pity our politicians don't sing!

Despite the acclaim, Scribner was always accessible, always a gentleman. When he talked about a particularly successful concert, like the one in Moscow, his eyes would lit with excitement and even a little wonder, as if he could not quite believe his chorale was so successful. He never put on airs, never acted like a celebrity.  I imagine that his neighbors could freely come knocking on his door to borrow a cup of sugar.

The institution he established in 1965 is still flourishing.  It still commissions new works.  It still celebrates MLK. It still travels and it still hosts foreign artists.  This year the Society toured five cities in China.  Its Christmas concert featured guests from Singapore.  But I did not attend.  I know if I did that in my mind I would be seeing the maestro walking on the stage with a happy smile and my attention would drift to the concerts of years gone by - to Carmen de Vicente, and to the Silent Night in Russian. I would be missing the warm and fuzzy feeling specific to Scribner and it would not be fair to the chorus and its current leader.

Besides, it's time to hear other unique choral sounds this city has to offer during the holiday season.

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