This concert by the Choral Arts Society of Washington had as its theme the artistry of Gabriel Fauré and two of his protégés, Lili Boulanger and Florent Schmitt. One of the interesting takeaways is that Fauré, who was a revered teacher of many younger composers at the Paris Conservatoire, gave his students the freedom to establish their own distinct personalities as composers.

The Choral Arts Society of Washington
© Shannon Finney Photography

Fauré’s Requiem is justly recognized as one example of the genre (another is the Requiem by Maurice Duruflé) that de-emphasizes the judgmental aspects of the liturgy for the dead. Fauré’s score calls for organ and orchestra supporting the chorus. But it has a chamber-like character, which likely explains why the piece also works well in the arrangement for organ without orchestra. Indeed, it’s music that showcases the singers. This performance under Choral Arts music director Scott Tucker was a mainstream interpretation that delivered no particular fresh or unusual insights. This isn’t to imply that the performance was anything other than committed and polished; like an old friend, this is music that benefits from its familiarity and predictability. Particular standouts in today's presentation were soprano soloist Laura Choi Stuart in the Pie Jesu movement – bright and clear of voice – as well as the smooth baritone of Trevor Scheunemann in the Libera me. The latter section was performed with a bit more forward momentum than one often encounters in this music, which was refreshing to hear. Also noteworthy was the fact that the chorus members sang the Requiem entirely from memory, .

The Saint-Saëns Sarabande (part of the composer’s Op.93), a late addition to the program, was a mildly engaging work for strings. Well-crafted but not particularly memorable, it served mainly to illustrate how special the next generation of French composers would prove to be. The Psaume XXIV by Lili Boulanger is one of three such works penned by an extraordinary musical talent whose life was cut short tragically at the age of just 25. Written in 1916 and scored without woodwinds or strings, Psaume XXIV reveals an already-mature creative voice, incorporating “primitivism” as much as “orientalism” with its plethora of open fourths and fifths. One suspects that the Stravinsky of Petrushka and The Rite of Spring may well have influenced Boulanger, but the final work on the Choral Arts program was most definitely a major influence on her as well.

Florent Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII stands as one of the monumental choral works in the repertoire. Until recently it was more “heard about than heard” – likely because of the forces required to mount the piece (large mixed chorus, soprano solo, organ, solo violin and large orchestra). The contemporary American composer Kenneth Fuchs has written this about this work, “The Psalm is unusual for French music because it has such a big profile... its language isn’t Germanic, but its dimensions somehow are.”

Scott Tucker
© Shannon Finney Photography

Certainly, the Psaume has had its share of champions over the decades. Reportedly, the conductor and teacher Manuel Rosenthal remarked to his students, “If you were to conduct just one French choral work in your career, it should be this Psalm.” As a recent discovery for Choral Arts director Tucker, upon hearing the piece he immediately decided to shape an entire concert program around it.

The Choral Arts performance of Psaume XLVII was laudable on many levels. It is quite a workout for singers (particularly the tessitura for the sopranos and tenors), with many divisi parts and much chromaticism. Rhythm and meter are also tricky in places, but all of these challenges were handled deftly. Sharp attacks in the opening section (“O clap your hands, all ye people”) were delivered with precision accuracy, yet balanced by a poignant middle section (musings on the Song of Songs) that rose to ecstatic levels. Soprano soloist Alexandria Shiner gave a movingly expressive account, soaring high above the orchestra in thrilling passages that are a far cry from any sort of conventional religiosity.

As for the orchestra, it has an equally major role in delivering the Psaume’s overall impact and under Tucker’s finely honed direction, the instrumentalists really rose to the occasion. Brass and woodwind passages were impactful, intonation in the notoriously complex string parts was spot on, and with one small exception towards the end of the piece, everything was on-point in the busy percussion department. Concertmaster Karen Johnson was fervent and expressive in the important violin transition before the entry of the soprano in the middle section of the work, while Julie Huang Tucker tackled the organ part – which contains its own share of important musical passages – with great panache.

It all came together in a finely executed and highly memorable performance that electrified the audience. Indeed, this production left no doubt that Psaume XLVII's outsize reputation is fully justified – and then some.