Seasons come and go and time flies and the cityscape changes — as do tastes in music and the arts and audiences — so that in Washington (as probably elsewhere) constants are hard to find.
But on Sunday, May 7, Washington classical and choral music audiences can bear witness to the fact that in a bountiful and rich performing arts environment there are some constants. That afternoon, at 4:30 p.m. at the National Presbyterian Church, the City Choir of Washington will celebrate its 10th anniversary with a performance of the great 18th-century German composer G. F. Handel’s operatic oratorio “Solomon.”
It will do so under the direction of its founder Robert Shafer, himself a figure of note in the city’s and the region’s musical environment, as director of the Washington Chorus for more than three decades and as director of choral music at Shenandoah Conservatory, where he is professor emeritus.
“Solomon” is the work with which Shafer began his first season directing the City Choir of Washington. “I love this piece, obviously, and to some extent it’s unusual, not necessarily the kind of thing associated with Handel,” he said. “While Handel is the master of the oratorio, it can feel very operatic. It’s a great opportunity for solo singers. It’s as much about story and character within the framework of the music as it is the music itself.”
It’s been duly noted by many leaders in the performing arts community — theater, opera, dance, choral music, orchestral music and so on — that groups large and small can no longer simply rely on superscription support or arts funding, given some of the warnings coming from the new administration’s budget masters.
“It think we’ve done very well,” Shafer said. “But it’s an issue for everyone, from the Kennedy Center — which is somewhat in an area by itself — to all of us. “I do think there is an audience for our work, for the music and its benefits to audiences. Young people especially have resources and choices. They think they can get everything they need from streaming, telephones, the internet, that they have numerous choices and that’s really what you have to take note of. But we offer the live experience, which is unique, and one that can’t be duplicated or repeated.”
Shafer, who began cultural life as a classical pianist, displays eclectic and adventuresome attitudes.
“You have to ask the questions — what’s an older audience interested in? what are young people interested in? — and then you match some of that with your own strengths, your resources and abilities, as to what you can do exceptionally well,” he said.
The City Choir of Washington has 140 members of professional-level ability, volunteer singers drawn from the Washington area. Shafer wears numerous hats for the group — as founder and nurturer and artistic director — which often finds him looking at a piece of work from two points. “Choral directors think that orchestra directors know nothing about choral music,” he said. “Of course, orchestra directors feel exactly the same way in reverse.”
The choir offers a subscription season while also performing with the NSO at the Kennedy Center and at Wolf Trap, Strathmore and New York’s Lincoln Center. Its other programs include the City Singers; Partners in Song, in which a high-school choral group performs in the choir’s annual Christmas program (which few performing arts groups can do without); and a Young American Artists program.
The 10th anniversary season has been a reflection of all the possibilities the performance of choral music can offer. It began with Brahms’ solemn, rich “A German Requiem” in a chamber orchestration directed by Joachim Linckelmann, a program that also featured Shafer’s own “Ubi Caritas,” a 60th birthday gift for the late maestro J. Reilly Lewis.
The season continued with “The Holly and the Ivy” for Christmas, which included as a Partner in Song the Marriotts Ridge High School Madrigal Singers. The March performance was composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Dona Nobis Pacem” (“Grant Us Peace”) at St. Luke Catholic Church, a cantata of reconciliation incorporating Walt Whitman’s poetry, first heard in the anxious times between the two world wars.
And so: 10 years. “Solomon.” Handel. And yes, Robert Shafer.