Scott Tucker departs from Choral Arts Society with a night of elegiac Brahms

Fri Jun 17, 2022 at 1:16 pm

Scott Tucker led his final concert with the Choral Arts Society of Washington Thursday night at National Cathedral.

Scott Tucker and the Choral Arts Society of Washington are parting ways. The distinguished choral conductor, who is completing his tenth season as the ensemble’s artistic director, led his final concert with the large volunteer chorus Thursday evening at Washington National Cathedral. The music of Johannes Brahms took center stage, which gave the evening an aura of autumnal solemnity.

Tucker did the impossible in 2012, just by taking over from his legendary predecessor, Norman Scribner, who had led the group since founding it some fifty years earlier. During his tenure Tucker has conducted the expected large masterpieces, but he mixed in both new music and much older music. He also founded a chamber choir within the ensemble and established a youth chorus, further expanding the group’s repertoire.

This concert surveyed the phases of Brahms’s extensive career as a choral composer and featured different facets of Choral Arts, as a way for Tucker to acknowledge them individually. Tucker had included the first piece, the relatively early Geistliches Lied, on his first season with Choral Arts, a selection that brought the evening full circle from the very start.

Brahms conceived the Geistliches Lied in 1856, as part of a correspondence with the violinist Joseph Joachim, with whom he was studying counterpoint. It is both a stringent contrapuntal exercise (a double canon at the 9th) and a gorgeous harmonic and melodic delectation. Tucker luxuriated in the piece, choosing a rather slow tempo, bringing out the sense of yearning, which he said was “the best word to describe Brahms, sorrow tinged with joy.”

In the early phase of his career, Brahms conducted two choirs, a women’s choir he established in Hamburg and the famous Wiener Singakademie. With the latter Brahms conducted many works by early choral masters, and for both he composed a vast output of choral music, clearly learning how voices worked.

Brahms wrote “Schaffe in mir, Gott,” one of his Zwei Motetten, in five parts (SATBB) for the Wiener Singakademie. The full Choral Arts Symphonic Chorus, numbering a little over one hundred singers, stood in mixed formation, which helped with the overall blend of their sound. The Choral Arts Chamber Singers, about twenty singers placed in the middle of the risers, took the more difficult fugal sections of this piece, set at a faster tempo that only got faster.

The Vier Gesänge, Op. 17, created for the women’s choir in Hamburg, served as Tucker’s hat tip to his soprano and alto sections. Although the choral writing is mostly three-part homophony, the textures of the four songs are highly unusual, accompanied by the combination of two French horns and harp. Here and elsewhere, the top soprano section’s sound tended to sag in intonation, although in general the women had an angelic presence in the resonant acoustic.

Tucker bid farewell to the Choral Arts men with the Alto Rhapsody, composed in 1869 as a wedding gift to Robert and Clara Schumann’s daughter Julie, with whom Brahms was apparently in love. This was the undisputed high point of the evening because of the soloist, mezzo-soprano Olivia Vote, whose voice has grown in richness since her striking Choral Arts debut in 2018. The Choral Arts Orchestra sounded its best in this darkly hued work, and Vote’s voice shimmered with power across its wide compass, easily outgunning the amassed forces.

Brahms continued to write for chorus throughout his life, an enormous component of his oeuvre that is rarely explored. From later Brahms, Tucker chose the Vier Quartette, Op. 92, to showcase the Choral Arts Chamber Singers. Accompanied by Brandon Straub, the ensemble’s associate conductor and pianist, the performance added an intimate note to the evening. The rolling choral effect at the end of the third song, “Abendlied,” captured the poetry’s depiction of falling asleep, as life’s joys and sorrows evaporate like a fading lullaby.

The concert closed appropriately with one of the great choral monuments of Brahms, Nänie, composed in 1881 on an elegiac text by Schiller as a tribute to Brahms’s late friend Anselm Feuerbach. This was Brahms at his most expansive, with broad choral and orchestral scope. A plaintive oboe solo in the orchestral introduction led to an expertly blended choral fugue on words about how death conquers both gods and humans.

Tucker drew out the unaccompanied sound of the large chorus at the momentous phrase toward the end (“the beautiful perishes, the most perfect passes away”), weaving voices carefully back together with instrumental lines. Brahms marked the final word of those lines (“stirbt,” or dies) with a couple surprise modulations, handled with subtlety by Tucker and his musicians.

An ominous pedal point in the timpani anchored the inevitable conclusion of the piece, but Brahms chose not to emphasize the poetry’s last line, about the silence of death. Brahms went back to the verse just before that (“a lament on the lips of loved ones is glorious”), which Tucker in a final flourish set down in rapturous D major chords scintillating with harp twinkles.

Tucker has not announced specific plans for his semi-retirement, but he will remain in the area. At the curtain call, his young daughter, Zoe, ran down the aisle and followed him off stage. He looked ready for a different kind of future as he returned for another bow with her in his arms. The sentiment of the final piece, that art outlasts life, hung in the air.

Choral Arts Society of Washington announced earlier this month that Jace Kaholokula Saplan will take over as its artistic director this September. No programming for next season has been announced.

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