May 18, 2010

Anne Midgette Reviews Reilly and Friends

Review: J. Reilly Lewis 25th anniversary event at Washington National Cathedral

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 18, 2010

On Sunday, a broad swath of Washington's music community turned out to celebrate one of its pillars, the choral conductor and organist J. Reilly Lewis, who celebrated his 25th anniversary as the head of the Cathedral Choral Society with a typically informal, personal event called "Reilly and Friends."
In the classical world, 25 years is a drop in the bucket -- Norman Scribner, founder of the Choral Arts Society, is currently wrapping up his 45th anniversary season with that group, and Lewis himself has served for more than 30 years as head of the Washington Bach Consort. But the anniversary was an excuse for many to come cheer the popular Lewis -- including Scribner himself, who conducted one of the pieces. The concert at Washington National Cathedral included everyone from the Washington Ballet (Andile Ndlovu danced an athletic if stylistically incongruous interpretation of the aria from the "Goldberg" Variations) to the Washington Symphonic Brass to the kids of the St. Albans-National Cathedral Schools Chorale, the girls in purple patterned skirts that made a funky contrast to the demure purple ruffle-necked robes sported by the smallest members of the cathedral's Choir of Men and Boys.
Lewis's musical autobiography, as presented here, was intimately bound up with the cathedral, whose difficult acoustic he made a virtue by placing choruses in different parts of the building to highlight the ways the sound ricocheted off the high pale stone. It was also bound up with a tradition of sacred music distinct from the 19th-century classical canon, and, like the cathedral itself, somewhat newer: The early 20th-century French and Belgian organ composers Lewis has loved (he played Maurice Duruflé's Toccata himself), and the living composers he has worked with. One highlight was the world premiere of Dominick Argento's "The Choir Invisible"; the composer set a thoughtful and slightly convoluted text by George Eliot with gentle declamatory grace.
A third component, inevitably, was Bach, in several incarnations, including the familiar Sinfonia melody from Cantata No. 156 played respectably on cello by the head of the Washington Performing Arts Society, Neale Perl, in the unaccustomed role of performer.
A 25th anniversary is an active thing: still in progress, not truly venerable. Rather than the hush of ancient tradition, Sunday's concert exuded the ruddy good health of the comfortably middle-aged. The choruses entered to a plump, Wagner-influenced Richard Strauss processional from 1909, and exited, at the end of a long afternoon, to the raucous mewlings of a gaggle of bagpipers and the accompanying drummers from the St. Andrew's Society. After leading the crowd outdoors, the pipers stood in a semicircle in front of the cathedral and continued to play: the focus of a community, standing around them soaking up the music, and the sun.

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