Walker draws superb performances from Choral Arts Society to close season

Sun May 20, 2018 at 11:03 am

The Choral Arts Society of Washington performed Rossini’s “Stabat Mater” under Antony Walker Saturday night. Photo: Shannon Finney

Washington’s multiple large choruses tend to perform a circumscribed set of blockbuster works year after year. How refreshing, then, was Saturday’s concert by the Choral Arts Society of Washington at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. With guest conductor Antony Walker and four distinguished soloists, this large volunteer chorus gave stellar performances of Rossini’s Stabat mater, a work that deserves more hearings than it gets.

The Italian opera arias on the first half were reminiscent of a performance by Walker’s other organization, Washington Concert Opera, down to sharing some orchestral musicians. Soprano Sarah Coburn, a repeat performer with Walker at WCO, gave a sensational rendition of “Una voce poco fa” from The Barber of Seville. Last heard next door in Washington National Opera’s 2011 Lucia di Lammermoor, she pulled out all the stops, interpolating a surprise high note (“la vinceró”) and finessing many high runs and perfectly placed staccato top notes.

Tenor Jack Swanson took the stage with boisterous enthusiasm for “Ah! Mes amis” from Donizetti’s La fille du régiment, tossing off the infamous nine high Cs with spectacular bravado. Mezzo-soprano Olivia Vote distinguished herself with burnished warmth in “All’afflitto è dolce il pianto” from the same composer’s Roberto Devereux.

Bass-baritone Matthew Scollin, currently singing two supporting roles in WNO’s Candide, stepped in on short notice to replace an ailing colleague. He displayed a puissant range and smooth legato tone in “Vi ravviso o luoghi ameni” from Bellini’s La Sonnambula. All four soloists formed a cohesive, handsome ensemble in the “Prière” from Rossini’s Moïse et Pharaon, an opera hopefully on Walker’s docket for WCO at some point in the future.

Walker expertly coaxed sensitive phrasing from the large chorus, allowing the orchestra to balance their powerful volume in “Gli aranci olezzano,” from the opening scene of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. The choir ran the gamut from soft crooning to full-throated patriotism in “Va, pensiero,” the nationalistic chorus from Verdi’s Nabucco, as well as supporting the soloists and taking over the prayer in the scene from Moïse et Pharaon.

Rossini’s Stabat mater is a late work, finished in 1841, and notable especially for its evocative choral writing. Walker elicited an ardent, shapely reading of the Introduction, stern and dark in color. Swanson’s tenor impressed again in the heroic “Cujus animam,” soaring on the many A-flats before hitting a high D-flat in the closing cadenza. Scollin was equally solid in the bass solos, up to an assured high E in “Pro peccatis suae gentis.”

With the better material given by Rossini to the second soprano soloist, Vote excelled in this piece. She shone in the duet “Quis est homo” with Coburn, and the broad swath of her voice suited the dramatic cavatina “Fac ut portem” beautifully. Coburn’s voice lacked some of the  dramatic weight to match Vote, and she could not quite keep pace with the blaring trombones and chorus in the apocalyptic “Inflammatus et accensus.”

The quartet of soloists was at their best as an ensemble in the “Sancta Maria” movement, set at just the right bouncing tempo for the syncopated motif signifying the piercing of the heart by Mary’s sadness. They also remained right on pitch in the perilous unaccompanied “Quando corpus morietur” movement, as did the whole chorus in the “Eja, mater” movement.

This was a superlative performance from both singers and orchestra. Walker and his forces set a high and stylish standard for Rossini’s work, which Gianandrea Noseda plans to perform with the National Symphony Orchestra next April.

Next season for the Choral Arts Society of Washington will include Britten’s War Requiem, Berlioz’s Symphonie funèbre et triomphale, and Philip Glass’s Itaipu, among other works. choralarts.org

One Response to “Walker draws superb performances from Choral Arts Society to close season”

  1. Posted May 21, 2018 at 7:52 am by David Drasin

    It was a superb and moving performance, with an well-under-capacity but enthusiastic crowd. Beautiful music, but Rossini’s appeals to beauty and gorgous melodies made a stronger impression than his paean to suffering.

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