A Fresh Look: The world-premiere of Jake Runestad’s “Ave Verum” is among concert highlights.
by Patrick D. McCoy
One of the challenging aspects of programming interesting concerts season after season is perhaps finding thematic material and weave it altogether in a way that makes musical sense. On Sunday, At The Kennedy Center, The Choral Arts Society of Washington presented a program that began with an emotional arc: the aspect of exaltation of Bach’s cantata for solo soprano “Jauchzet Gott in Allen Landen,” the reverence of Mozart’s motet “Ave Verum Corpus” and the majestic fervor his Requiem. In some respects, the arc seemed to be reversed, with the ebullience of the music experienced towards the end rather at the beginning as anticipated.
Soprano Yuanming Song was last heard in Washington with Choral Arts in the Brahms Requiem. Possessing a beautifully warm voice at that performance, that same quality was present on Sunday. However, for the Bach, there seemed to be a “heaviness” to the sound that worked against the initial aspect of jubilation. A cantata interspersed with a few recitatives, her voice was more consistent in the music that had longer phrases. The final “Alleluja” was certainly a delightful turning point. With the carefully nuanced playing by trumpeter Thomas Cupples, the voice and trumpet seemed to blend well together, bringing the cantata to its close. Artistic Director Scott Tucker mentioned to the audience that Choral Arts had been performing a series of performances of music by J. S. Bach as a tribute to the legacy of the late J. Reilly Lewis-founder of the Washington Bach Consort and conductor of the Cathedral Choral Society. All who knew Reilly, knew that he was a supporter of many performances in the city and thus this was one that he would have encouraged and nurtured.
A truly stunning musical gem on the program was “Ave Verum” by the young composer Jake Runestad. Conceived to seamlessly segue into Mozart’s original motet, Runestad’s creation was otherworldly. Beginning with the strings of the orchestra, there were deliciously long fragments of the original melody treated with a sense of musical ambiguity. The voices of Choral Arts brought passion to the tender text by Todd Boss. Finally settling on an dominant ‘A’ major chord, Runestad’s piece provided the perfect pivot point into Mozart’s timeless setting of the “Ave Verum Corpus.”
After intermission, the real vocal fireworks of the evening came in the performance of Mozart’s Requiem. Joining Maestro Tucker were all four soloists: soprano Yuanming Song, mezzo-soprano Allegra de Vita, tenor Matthew Loyal Smith and bass Wei Wu. The ‘gloves’ were now off. Soprano Yuanming Song was truly in her element, confidently providing the apex of the solo quartet. Notable singing also came from tenor Matthew Loyal Smith, who sang with a radiant tone and the mezzo-soprano Allegra De Vita, who teased the audience with moments of gloriously rich sound, especially in her lower register. Maestro Tucker seemed to move the Requiem along at a brisk tempo throughout. There were some movements that one looked for a sense of expansiveness, such as in the quartet “Recordare” which usually is demonstrative of ‘pulling vocal taffy’ from each of the soloists. But out of all the soloists, the bass Wei Wu was certainly one of sterling quality, delivering with meaty, resonant tone at each entrance, yet blending generously with his colleagues.
Moments of majesty bubbled over throughout the performance, especially in the “Sanctus” followed by the fugal execution on the word ‘Osanna.’ One of the beautiful contrast was the sublimely rendered “Hostias et preces tibi” in which the chorus sang with a quiet joy that then expanded into a full forte. It was actually in the depth of singing witnessed in the final movement of the work that the listener felt the feeling of jubilation that perhaps was originally conceived for the beginning.
–A native of Petersburg, Virginia, Patrick D. McCoy is a graduate of Virginia State University and Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Virginia. He has been an arts contributor for Examiner.com, CBS Washington, The Afro American Newspaper and most recently was the Performing Arts Columnist at Washington Life Magazine for four years. As a church musician, he currently serves as Organist/Choirmaster at Saint John’s Episcopal Church (Zion Parish) in Beltsville, Maryland. Visit www.patrickdmccoy.com for all of your arts news and send press releases and ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.