‘The Raven’ and Other Spooky Stuff at Dumbarton Concerts

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Nicholas White. | Miranda Loud, Orpheus Photography

The spirit of Halloween, situated as it is in the heart of fall, has a way of lingering amid the spidery white threads on bushes, the leaves falling and falling and piling up, the nights earlier and longer, the air a little damp and the vistas full of fading beauties everywhere.

It lingers also musically with the presence and presentation of choral and chamber music composer and performer Nicholas White and the Raven Consort, performing Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” and other poems as part of the Dumbarton Concerts series Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 7, Dumbarton United Methodist Church in Georgetown.

The musical work, a chamber union of words by Poe and music by White, a noted conductor, composer, organist, pianist, is making its second appearance at the Dumbarton Concert Series being first presented in February,  2013.   White, who is a native of England,  is currently Chair of the Arts and Director of Chapel Music at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, as well as being the Music Director of the Boston Cecilia.  One Washington critic called the work “an evening of sheer heaven in an acoustically ideal performing space.”

“The atmospherics, the candlelight, the intimacy, and the spiritual feeling at Dumbarton is, I think, perfect for Poe,”  White said.  “’The Raven’” is also an ideal poem for performance as music, as choral music for voices and instruments—strings and piano.”

White is very much the modern composer, not in the sense that his work is modernist in an atonal way—listening to “The Raven” is to experience rushes of lyricism throughout.  “I think perhaps there’s too much made of what modern classical music should sound like in contemporary times,” he said.  “And in this setting, this very intimate place, what you’ve accomplishes echoers and lingers, just like the poem.”

While the concert deals with other Poe poems—“Annabel Lee” and “The Bells”—the main work is a cantata for ensemble performance, voices, string quartet and piano, likely a first for any poem by the great American poet and prince of poetic darkness, who died at age 40.

Dumbarton Concerts commissioned the work, which proved to be very popular when first performed.  “You know, I think what happens with Poe, there’s a romanticism associated with his melancholy, he was an unhappy man, haunted, and his work is haunting.  But the music doesn’t have to be as dark as Poe’s life. ‘The Raven’ is a very musical poem, it’s a man calling out his anguish, his hope and feelings, confronting an apparition.  I kind of doubt that he was as miserable as all that’s been made out.”

While White has written big works, in  the “The Raven,” he said,  “I wanted to evoke the idea of a Victorian parlor, which quite often is how most people in the 19th century received their entertainment, gatherings in homes, or in churches, by natural light, it was very social, but also very cultural.”

“I think Poe had a unique appeal. He was enigmatic, lonely, often alone. He had this dark side,  which was mystical. He was, by all accounts, self-destructive, but what he created, the poetry especially, but also his stories, they endure. They remain, in their own way, modern, and it’s material ideally suited for music.”

White is something of a prodigy in the sense that he held his first organist and choir master position at the age of 15 in England, and became Organ Scholar of Clare College in Cambridge.  After coming to the United States, he held positions in churches, colleges and schools, including Washington National Cathedral as assistant organist and choirmaster, the Cathedral Choral Society, as keyboard artist, and music  director of the Woodley Ensemble.   He is the founder of the Tiffany Consort, an acclaimed group of eight singers, whose first CD “O Magnum Mysterium” was nominated for a Grammy.

= Nicholas White and the Raven Consort, performing Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” and other poems as part of the Dumbarton Concerts series 8 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 7, Dumbarton United Methodist Church, 3133 Dumbarton St. NW; 202-333-7212.

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