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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The music premiere of Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Raven'

Gustave Dore, The Raven, 1884. "And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor/Shall be lifted--nevermore!" Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress

It was all we expected and much more.

That being the world premiere of a cantata for Edgar Allan Poe's (1809-1849) poem, The Raven, created by Nicholas White (b. 1967) and commissioned by Angelo G. Cicolani, a board member and chairman emeritus of Dumbarton Concerts where Mr. White conducted four vocalists and a string quartet Saturday night and played the piano.

All this magnificence took place at the Historic Dumbarton Church in Georgetown which, enthusiasts will know, takes some dedication via private car, given the rarity of parking spots in Georgetown. However, it did not deter the determined.

'Bravo!' the packed house shouted repeatedly while standing at the show's conclusion.

Historic Dumbarton Church on the night of Nicholas White's premiere, The Raven/Patricia Leslie
Accompanied by two violins, a viola, and a cello, the vocalists flawlessly sang the words to one of the world's favorite poems:

T     Then into the church turning, all my soul within me burning,

S      Soon I heard again the music somewhat louder than before.

Beginning with a few mournful bars from the piano which became the ticking of a clock, the piece quickly accelerated with baritone Steven Combs's entry, which was, initially at least, almost overcome by the strings (June Huang and Christof Richter, violins, Marta Soderberg Howard, viola, and Benjamin Wensel, cello).

Soon, the voices of Emily Noel, soprano, Roger Isaacs, countertenor, and Matthew Loyal Smith, tenor, joined the production, adding depth to the composition which Followed fast and followed faster.

Each of the voices was exquisite in its own delivery, but it was stunning sound put forth by Mr. Isaacs, reaching unbelievably high notes, that the music became, like the poem, almost surreal, matching the content of the night and providing a splendid choir to hear.
Most spectacular were his solos, and the harmonies of the memorable combinations of duets, trios, and quartets.

 Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore.

T      The work complemented the poem in elegant fashion and came visually to life by closing eyes and spying the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned in my mind...Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the Nightly shore.

The performance Thrilled me — filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;

        So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I

        sat repeating

'Tis beautiful music I am hearing, coming from the stage room floor.

We shall remember upon the morrow the sounds of the rapping, tapping upon our minds and the sorrow for the lost Lenore.

We were visitors entreating entrance upon the church's chamber doors. That we were and nothing more. Mr. White opened wide the door.

We sat there wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming could the music be more than more? The silence at last was broken and soon we heard the notes take soar.

But the music still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling

While we sat in cushioned seats and heard lamenting for the lost Lenore.

To endure for ever more.

 The first part of the program featured the music of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736) in Stabat Mater which Mr. Isaacs and Ms. Noel sang in solos and duets, a selection which enriched anticipation of the coming attraction.

The Saturday performance coincided with the 35th anniversary of Dumbarton Concerts and concluded with a presentation of an appreciation plaque to Mr. Cicolani, who was called up on stage to receive recognition and thanks from the adoring audience. 

Mr. White, a Grammy nominee, is director of chapel music and organist at St. Paul's School in New Hampshire. Ten years ago he founded Tiffany Consort, an ensemble of eight singers whose first production, O Magnum Mysterium, earned a Grammy nomination.  Mr. White has earned many commissions, including presentations for Martin Luther King Day at the Kennedy Center, and for the National Cathedral.

For those familiar with Gustave Dore's eerie and unforgettable drawings of The Raven which Poe never saw and which were published the year after Dore died in 1883, four original Dore drawings may be seen in the new exhibition, Color, Light, Line: French Drawings, Watercolors and Pastels from Delacroix to Signac in the West Building at the National Gallery of Art through May 13.

Some years ago, for my sister at the closed (but soon to re-open?) Edgar Allan Poe House in Baltimore, I purchased the Dore book of Raven illustrations, but I was never able to part with it, and there it sits still upon my table ever more.

Future Dumbarton Concerts are:

February 23: This Man is Magic! Ken Peplowski & Chuck Redd Trio

March 16: Beyond Beethoven Carpe Diem String Quartet

April 6: The Criers and A Far Cry

Where: Historic Dumbarton Church, 3133 Dumbarton Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20007

For more information: 202-965-2000

Free parking at The Hyde School, 3219 O Street

Metro station:  Are you kidding?  This is Georgetown.

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