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Cathedral Choral Society Music Director J. Reilly Lewis stepped up to the mic on Sunday afternoon at the Washington National Cathedral and proclaimed the moment “truly a grand occasion.” He was addressing a packed house pumped for a one-two punch of French classics: Camille Saint-Saens‘s Symphony No. 3 (“the Organ”) and Hector Berlioz‘s Te Deum.
As Lewis spoke, his words climbed the nave’s 100-foot elevation and then came back down, producing the sort of otherwordly echo that you want in a house of God. The question is whether you want that audio dynamic for an afternoon of classical music.
In the case of the Organ symphony, the answer is yes and no.
One of the monumental works in all of classical tunes, Saint-Saens’s No. 3 brilliantly alternates the mellow and the loud. Lewis noted those elements in his opening remarks, urging audience members to “savor the intimate moments, the quiet moments.” And he conducted accordingly, leading his orchestra on a careful and slow treatment of the composer’s soft side.
Understatement, unfortunately, doesn’t come across too elegantly inside a building of 83,012 square feet. During those intimate passages, the sound is just as likely to bounce off a gothic arch positioned near the heavens as it is to reverberate in your ears. The resulting effect is that of a sound barrier between orchestra and concertgoer.
Good thing, then, that there’s an organ at the Washington National Cathedral—-and it’s designed to fill this kind of space. Actually, it’s not just an organ, it’s called the Great Organ, and its specifications page is a piece of work in its own right. The Great Organ came through on Sunday afternoon; played by Scott Dettra, it provided the just the tone that I’d imagine Saint-Saens was after when he composed this masterpiece. This monster kicked in huge at the outset of the symphony’s final movement, though it kind of overshadowed the orchestra, which struggled to make itself heard in between the bursts of the Great Organ.
Particularly buried was the piano, which plays a small but heavenly role in this piece. I couldn’t hear it at all and wondered whether the Cathedral Choral Society even bothered with it. An e-mail to the society confirmed that, indeed, the piano was part of the mix.
As far as I can remember, the piano was never highlighted by the cathedral’s wondrous video monitors. And this is a great perk of attending a concert at this venue—-the video, that is. Large color monitors are everywhere in the sanctuary, and the video team is second to none in terms of capturing key scenes. When the horns come in hard, the camera is on them. Same for the Great Organ. The symphony even designates a brief moment of glory for the triangle player. Sure enough, when it was time to tickle that thing, the video was all over it. Triangle—-now, that’s one instrument I could play, I thought as I checked out the screen.
One thing I couldn’t do, however, was stay for Te Deum. To judge from the choral lineup that the society had ready for this massive opus, though, I imagine it was divine.
Photograph courtesy of Laura Padgett.