Scott Tucker and the Choral Arts Society of Washington part ways. The distinguished choir director, who is completing his tenth season as the ensemble’s artistic director, conducted his final concert with the large volunteer choir on Thursday evening at the Washington National Cathedral. Music by Johannes Brahms took center stage, lending the evening an aura of autumnal solemnity.
Tucker pulled off the impossible in 2012, simply taking over from his legendary predecessor, Norman Scribner, who had led the band since its inception some 50 years earlier. During his tenure, Tucker conducted the expected big masterpieces, but he mixed both new music and much older music. He also founded a chamber choir within the ensemble and created a youth choir, further expanding the group’s repertoire.
This concert reviewed the phases of Brahms’ long career as a choral composer and presented different facets of the choral arts, as a way for Tucker to recognize them individually. Tucker had included the first piece, the relatively old Geistliches liedin her first season with Choral Arts, a selection that wraps the evening up from the start.
Brahms designed the Geistliches lied in 1856, as part of a correspondence with the violinist Joseph Joachim, with whom he studied counterpoint. It is both a rigorous contrapuntal exercise (a double canon in the 9th) and a magnificent harmonic and melodic delight. Tucker reveled in the piece, choosing a rather slow tempo, bringing out the feeling of nostalgia, which he said was “the best word to describe Brahms, grief tinged with joy”.
Early in his career, Brahms directed two choirs, a women’s choir he founded in Hamburg and the famous Wiener Singakademie. With the latter, Brahms conducted many works by early choral masters, and for both he composed an extensive production of choral music, clearly learning how voices worked.
Brahms wrote “Schaffe in mir, Gott”, one of his Zwei Motetten, in five parts (SATBB) for the Wiener Singakademie. The full Choral Arts Symphonic Chorus, numbering just over a hundred singers, stood in mixed formation, which contributed to the overall blend of their sound. The Choral Arts Chamber Singers, about twenty singers placed in the middle of the risers, took over the most difficult fugal sections of this piece, set to a faster tempo that only accelerated.
The Vier Gesange, Op. 17, premiered for the Hamburg Women’s Choir, served as Tucker’s cap for his soprano and alto sections. Although the choral writing is primarily three-part homophony, the textures of the four songs are highly unusual, accompanied by the combination of two French horns and a harp. Here and elsewhere the sound of the upper soprano section tended to sag in intonation, though in general women had an angelic presence in the resonant acoustics.
Tucker bid farewell to the men of the choral arts with the Viola Rhapsody, composed in 1869 as a wedding present to Julie, the daughter of Robert and Clara Schumann, with whom Brahms was apparently in love. It was the undisputed highlight of the evening due to the soloist, mezzo-soprano Olivia Vote, whose voice has grown richer since her striking choral art debut in 2018. her voice shimmered with power through her broad compass, easily outstripping the amassed forces.
Brahms continued to write for choir throughout his life, a huge component of his oeuvre that is rarely explored. From later Brahms, Tucker chose the Vier Quartet, Op. 92, to highlight the Choral Arts Chamber Singers. Accompanied by Brandon Straub, conductor and associate pianist of the ensemble, the show added an intimate note to the evening. The rolling chorale effect at the end of the third song, “Abendlied,” captured the poetic depiction of falling asleep, as life’s joys and sorrows evaporate like a fading lullaby.
The concert was appropriately closed with one of Brahms’ great choral monuments, Nanie, composed in 1881 on an elegiac text by Schiller in homage to the late friend of Brahms, Anselm Feuerbach. It was Brahms at his most expansive, with wide choral and orchestral range. A plaintive oboe solo in the orchestral introduction led to an expertly mixed choral fugue over words about how death conquers both gods and humans.
Tucker extracted the unaccompanied sound of the grand chorus at the capital phrase near the end (“beautiful perishes, most perfect dies”), carefully weaving the vocals with instrumental lines. Brahms marked the last word of these lines (“stirbt”, or dies) with some surprise modulations, manipulated with subtlety by Tucker and his musicians.
An ominous pedal point in the timpani anchored the piece’s inevitable conclusion, but Brahms chose not to emphasize the final line of the poetry, about the silence of death. Brahms returned to the verse just before (“a lament on the lips of loved ones is glorious”), which Tucker in a final fanfare laid down in ravishing D major chords shimmering with harp flickers.
Tucker has not announced specific plans for his semi-retirement, but he will remain in the area. At the curtain call, his young daughter, Zoe, ran down the aisle and followed him offstage. He seemed ready for a different future as he returned for another arc with her in his arms. The feeling of the final piece, that art survives life, hung in the air.
Washington Choral Arts Society announcement earlier this month that Jace Kaholokula Saplan will take over as art director in September. No lineup for next season has been announced. choralarts.org