The Choral Arts Society of Washington’s “Festival of Voices” program bashfully obscured its contents like a tin without a label, and I suppose I understand why. The program was more specifically a celebration of British composers with a focus on coronation anthems, old and new. And just like that I’m yawning.
So maybe nudging our attentions more toward context (singing!) than content (hailing!) was helpful. Though the theme of rejoicing over His or Her Majesty was firmly in place through the evening, so, too, was a remarkably sensitive approach to well-worn works by Handel, William Walton and Benjamin Britten, as well as a shiny new (and newly orchestrated) piece by Roxanna Panufnik.
Chorus master Anthony Blake Clark’s ranks of some 130 singers loomed over the Choral Arts orchestra — a sizable group itself of 79 players, including 29 members of the National Symphony Orchestra — making for an imposing sight. And yet, this chorus puts its marvelous control to good use, often registering far more gently than its numbers might portend.
This, along with strong performances from the podium by Clark and, especially, guest conductor Marin Alsop, allowed these anthems to rise above their occasions.
It could scarcely be a coronation without Handel’s “Zadok the Priest,” composed for the coronation of George II in 1727 and performed before the anointing of every British monarch since, including Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 and King Charles III in 2023. Clark led an invigorating take, with splendid fans of Adriano Spampanato’s harpsichord, heraldic bursts of trumpet and timpani, and a properly sustained and suitably exultant energy.
Alsop, who led the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as its 12th music director from 2007 to 2021, took the stage to italicized cheers from the hall and dove right in to Walton’s “Coronation Te Deum,” composed for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Walton was the son of a choirmaster and a singing teacher, and his choral works have the melodic intimacy of a hymn you would hum to yourself.
His “Te Deum” opens with a high-spirited dialogue between the chorus and the orchestra, and the orchestra and the hall’s majestic pipe organ (well played through the evening by Matthew Steynor). A middle section pares away to a passage of chorus and flute before trumpets summon the orchestra to a bristling tutti atop a bedrock of pedaled bass. Walton’s often eerie choral modulations were lent the same gleam as the fanfares that delivered us into the anthem’s somber finish.
At 23, Britten wrote in his diary that Walton was “so obviously the head prefect of English music and I’m the promising new boy.” But by the time Britten’s “Suite on English Folk Tunes” was composed in 1974, he was one of his country’s most beloved and emblematic composers.
He had also just endured heart valve replacement (and a stroke), and his music seemed to be taking nostalgic breaths. While not explicitly concerned with the monarchy, it’s a thoroughly British work, compressing some 10 folk melodies within five brisk movements over 14-ish minutes.
And although the suite was mislabeled in the printed program as the handiwork of Ralph Vaughan Williams (composer of the 1923 “English Folk Song Suite”), Alsop and Co. offered a reverent account, bursting with timbral variety and dynamic character, that was unmistakably Britten. Special mention goes to the blazing final movement fiddling of concertmaster Audrey Wright (also of the New York Philharmonic).
Among the 12 works composed for the May coronation of King Charles III were seven by women, and among those was Roxanna Panufnik’s “Coronation Sanctus” for organ and choir. In September at Royal Albert Hall, Alsop led the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers in the premiere of a fully orchestrated version, commissioned by Choral Arts, and given its U.S. premiere Wednesday.
The chorus made easy sounding of its shifting celestial harmonies (including a high C that Panufnik once tweeted was “entirely optional, I promise!”), and Alsop masterfully built its momentum to a sudden bluff of near silence (but for the tail end of a tubular bell). It was a remarkable four minutes — confirmation that Panufnik is one of the most compelling choral composers of our time.
After this spread of appetizers, the second half of the evening was consumed by the sprawl of Walton’s “Belshazzar’s Feast,” which premiered at the Leeds Festival in 1931 (with a young Britten in the audience).
It was a treat to hear bass-baritone Ryan McKinny so soon after experiencing his commanding performance in the Metropolitan Opera’s “Dead Man Walking,” and in such a vastly different context. He held a magnificent presence against the roar of the chorus, his voice here and there too much of a clenched fist but suffused with a humanity you don’t often get from this monolithic slab of music.
The chorus attacked its narrative role (and its several haunting stretches of a cappella singing) with crisp, consonant authority. Alsop carefully managed the work’s many rhythmic shifts (including its detours into jazzy syncopation) and coaxed lovely detail from the orchestra, especially the opening passage of shuddering cellos, insistent bass and lovely interplays of saxophone, oboe and flute. The ease and delight with which she managed to construct the climax — its soaring brass, racing strings, stuttering stops and scintillating finish — was a reminder of why Alsop is so beloved around these parts. Hail to the queen, indeed.