Volume 4, Issue 3 | February 6, 2019
Forgot to book your travel for springtime in Paris?
City Choir will bring it to you! Join us for:
An Exciting Concert Program
for “The Glory of France”
City Choir’s celebration of French music will now feature some of the most beautiful music to emerge from the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Gabriel Fauré’s lovely Cantique de Jean Racine was written in 1865 by the nineteen-year-old Fauré in his final year of conservatory. (Not surprisingly, he received the composition prize). Even in this early work, one can see the aesthetic of the mature composer: spare, intimate arrangements, a subtle and elegant musical language, and a strong affinity for spiritual texts.

Duruflé’s Four Motets on Gregorian Themes were written in 1960, just before the final version of his Requiem . Long an advocate of reviving Gregorian chant, Duruflé based each motet on a theme from its eponymous chant. The choir will also perform the gorgeous and effervescent “Sanctus” from Duruflé’s Requiem , a piece also inspired by Gregorian chant.

César Franck, a composer, organist, pianist, and professor, was one of the musical giants of nineteenth-century France. Among Franck’s prominent students were Charles Tournemire, Louis Vierne, and Paul Dukas, all of whom would later become Duruflé’s most influential teachers. Like his younger colleague Fauré, Franck straddled the divide between tradition and modernity. His organ Chorale in A minor was one of his last works, written just before his death in 1890.

Francis Poulenc’s Gloria remains one of the composer’s most endearing works. Sometimes pious, often mischievous, it captures both Poulenc’s personality and the audience’s hearts. Our own Peter Uhlir will accompany City Choir’s performance on piano.
Maestro Shafer Returns to the Podium
The City Choir of Washington is thrilled to welcome Maestro Robert Shafer back to the podium for our March and May concerts! As we shared in December, the maestro has been suffering after-effects from a serious automobile accident last July, particularly a middle ear disorder, hyperacusis, which makes noise sound painfully loud and distorted. Although the healing process has been slow, Maestro Shafer is finally seeing significant recovery and is eager to step back into his role as artistic director. City Choir could not be happier to welcome our founder and artistic director back!


Photo Credit: Jill Bochicchio
Poulenc and Duruflé: The Men and their Music
Francis Poulenc
A composition is a small window into the soul of its creator, and Francis Poulenc’s  Gloria  and Maurice Duruflé’s  Four Motets on Gregorian Themes  give us particular insights into the composers’ personalities.The reflects Poulenc’s dual nature: he embraced playful, popular music but was also deeply spiritual. Duruflé was quiet, introverted, and musically very conservative; he was also a passionate proponent of Gregorian chant, which infused many of his compositions, particularly the Four Motets and his Requiem .A composition is a small window into the soul of its creator, and Francis Poulenc’s and Maurice Duruflé’s Gloria

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) was born in Paris to a bourgeois father, Émile, and a bohemian mother, Jenny, a gifted amateur pianist who taught her son to play from age 4. However, young Francis was not allowed to attend conservatory, his father, a wealthy pharmaceutical manufacturer, preferring that he undertake a more general education. After Poulenc’s father died early, Francis threw himself into the avant-garde life of 1920s Paris. He was strongly influenced by Jean Cocteau, Erik Satie, and Igor Stravinsky, and was an enthusiastic proponent of Dadaism. 

Yet Poulenc was not a revolutionary: his heart and his musical gifts were in melody, not in the futuristic, atonal, or “machine music” fashionable at the time. He had an abiding love for the tunes of the music hall and embraced jazz. A prolific composer, he wrote dozens of works in all genres: ballet, opera, concerti, chamber music, piano works, choral works, and art song. In the 1930s he experienced a number of great losses and had a subsequent spiritual awakening, returning to the Catholicism of his youth. This spirituality infused his later music and led to a profundity his early works could not gain. The great Nadia Boulanger once said, "Poulenc's personality was much more complex than what met the eye. He was entirely paradoxical. You could meet him as easily in fashionable Parisian circles...or at Mass." One of Poulenc’s friends put it even more succinctly: "In Poulenc there is something of the monk and something of the rascal."

The Gloria captures both sides of Poulenc’s nature. His style is one of strong musical contrasts, moving between dissonance and lush, voluptuous chord progressions, from short clipped phrases to lyricism, from piano to forte . The movements run from playful to hauntingly beautiful and back again; the final movement ends on a solemn, hushed note from the soprano soloist, but just before that moment of peace, Poulenc cannot help but add an emphatic, jazzy “amen” interjected by the chorus. In response to criticism that the work bordered on the sacrilegious, Poulenc replied, “While writing it I had in mind those Crozzoli frescoes with angels sticking out their tongues, and also some solemn-looking Benedictine monks that I saw playing football one day.”
Maurice Durufle
Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) was a man who lived wholly within the 20th century but was never truly of it. From age 10 to 16 he lived at the choir school of the Rouen Cathedral, an experience which was perhaps the single strongest artistic influence of his life. The world of the Gregorian chant remained at the core of his artistic soul for his entire career. Characteristically humble and unsure of his talent, the young Duruflé nevertheless took the Paris Conservatory by storm: he won first-prizes five times, in organ, harmony, accompaniment, counterpoint and fugue, and composition.

Though he maintained an active career as a virtuoso organist, composer, and professor, Duruflé was a reclusive and private person. He lived in Paris during one of its most radical and creative eras, but he remained true to his personal style and was never distracted by fads and new fashions in composition. Upon hearing a jazz mass in 1969, he loudly expressed outrage over what he considered to be a scandalous travesty. He was a slow and meticulous composer, always self-critical, constantly rewriting and revising his pieces even years after they were completed. Duruflé focused primarily on works for chorus, organ, and orchestra; he wrote, “I am incapable of adding anything significant to the piano repertoire, view the string quartet with apprehension, and envisage with terror the idea of composing a song after the finished examples of Schubert, Fauré and Debussy.” As a result, Duruflé published only fourteen works. 

But what works they are! The Requiem and Four Motets both grew out of Duruflé’s fascination with Gregorian chant. Like the Requiem , each of the motets is based on a different chant tune which remains prominent throughout. (Click on the motet title below to hear the original Gregorian chant). Together, the four short motets form an arch shape: the serene “ Ubi caritas ” begins quietly, moving to a slightly faster tempo in the all-women “ Tota pulchra es ,” reaching a climax in the third motet (" Tu es Petrus "), and then in " Tantum ergo ," returning to the mood of serene contemplation first established in "Ubi caritas." Duruflé’s monks play no football, but they are never bloodless.

Yet as different as the two composers were, they were nevertheless colleagues and lions of the musical world. In 1939, Duruflé gave the world premiere of Poulenc’s Organ Concerto and advised Poulenc on the organ registrations. And together, with all their brilliance, disparities and contradictions, they do indeed reflect the glory of France.
Organist Paul Skevington
Pulls Out All the Stops
Allegro recently caught up with Paul Skevington, organist par excellence and minister of music and liturgy for over twenty-five years at Saint Luke Catholic Church in McLean, Virginia. City Choir is proud to present “The Glory of France” as part of the Saint Luke Music in McLean concert series, which Paul founded. Paul will contribute César Franck’s thrilling Organ Chorale No. 3 in A minor to the program. In addition to Music in McLean, Paul is also the director of the Saint Luke Festival Choir which has performed at Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome and Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and maintains a busy schedule as a soloist, an accompanist to many of the major choruses in Washington, D.C., and a recording artist.

Robert Shafer writes: “Paul Skevington, along with being one of my best friends, is one of the finest organists in the Metropolitan Washington area. We have collaborated for decades at the Kennedy Center, National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and National Presbyterian Church and his home church, the beautiful St. Luke Catholic Church in McLean, Virginia. Most recently, Paul played brilliantly on the City Choir's concert tour of England last summer. Not only is he a superb solo artist, but also a superb accompanist. On our British tour, he was sensitive to every nuance of the choir, even when the organ was quite distant from the singers. In this challenging situation, he was simply amazing!”

Allegro: You've recently celebrated your 25th anniversary at Saint Luke; what are some of the highlights during your tenure there?

Paul Skevington: What I find very fulfilling at Saint Luke is the growth in the music program over the last 25 years. The highlight for me is growing a program from a small seed to what it is today with a fantastic choir, great instruments, and the Music in McLean concert series. 

When I came here in 1993, there was no established traditional music program. I started off with a choir of 12 voices and have built that to the current 40 voices. There was just a small pipe organ which was not adequate for the size of the room. We were able to raise money and purchase our current instrument which has been a foundation for many of the music programs at Saint Luke. In addition, we acquired the 9-foot Falcone piano and a beautiful Tsaing baroque harpsichord during my tenure. 
 
And finally, the Music in McLean concert series. When I arrived, there was a tradition of concerts being performed in the church, but it was a haphazard schedule. Now we have over eighteen events a year, including our popular Third Wednesday at Noon Organ Recital Series.

Allegro: How individualistic is each organ? I understand you were instrumental (pardon the pun!) in bringing the 61-rank Steiner-Reck mechanical-action pipe organ to Saint Luke. What makes the Saint Luke organ special? Does it have a "personality"? Are there any characteristics our audience can listen for as you play?

P.S.: The Saint Luke Organ is special first of all because of the acoustics of the room. Music from the organ, as well as choir voices and the singing of the congregation, rings in the room. The organ has a broad range of dynamics from a very quiet pianissimo to a full thundering fortissimo. It has a wide range of colors, including strings, flutes, principal stops, and reeds, which will be on full display for the upcoming concert.

Allegro: Can you share notable aspects from your work with Bob Shafer over the years?

P.S: There are two experiences that are always important with a choir. One is the rehearsal. There is a huge amount of intellect and detail that is necessary in order to be a part of a rehearsal with Robert Shafer. This is something that over time refines the mind and refines the intellect. This allows a very deep and profound level of music-making.
 
The other side of that experience has to do with the performance, where the intellect is still very engaged and yet at the same time there's a certain amount of letting go and being one with the music, one with the choir, one with the acoustic. Robert Shafer understands both experiences, and imparts them to the choristers.

Allegro: You recently joined us for our tour to England, were there any particular challenges and memorable moments from the tour?

P.S.: It is the acoustics of the great cathedrals that impressed me most about the England trip. The high ceilings, the huge spaciousness, all with stone surfaces, allows the sound to reverberate throughout the space. The challenges include having the organ console thirty or forty feet up in the air. I would have a monitor with a camera on the conductor. One is quite separated from the choir. I actually had to play ahead of the beat so that by the time the sound got down to the floor the choir would be hearing the chord that I had played earlier.

Allegro: Is there anything you'd like to tell our readers about Franck’s Chorale No. 3 in A minor ?

P.S.: The Franck Chorale in A minor was written just a few months before Franck died. It is a very accessible piece from the listener’s standpoint. It is in an ABA overall pattern. There are three different motifs in the A section that are heard separately, followed by a very lyrical and quiet B section. When the A section returns, the motives are combined into a grand finale.
Many Thanks to Guest Conductor 
Gretchen Kuhrmann
Words cannot express how grateful The City Choir of Washington is to Maestra Gretchen Kurhmann for stepping in to serve as guest conductor for the first half of the season. Maestra Kuhrmann, founder and artistic director of Choralis and longtime friend and colleague of Robert Shafer’s, accepted the invitation to work with City Choir through the first half of our 2018-2019 season when we didn’t know with certainty when, or even if, Maestro Shafer would be able to return.

She graciously accepted and immediately began rehearsing the choir for the World War I Centennial season opener. She conducted to a sold-out crowd and engaged with audience members at the post-performance Q&A, providing fascinating insights. As guest conductor, Maestra Kuhrmann’s efforts continued with programming and conducting City Choir’s first annual Twelfth Night concert. Robert Shafer says of Maestra Kuhrmann, “She definitely is one of the most gracious conductors I know. What a colleague!”
Maestra Kuhrmann (center) with organist Todd Fickley (left) and composer Trevor Manor (right)
Robert Shafer holding the Celtic carving he made for Maestra Kuhrmann
Happy Holidays with City Choir
and the City Singers
In addition to the rousing Rutter Gloria , City Choir’s first annual Twelfth Night concert featured local composer Trevor Manor’s arrangement, “All My Heart This Night Rejoices.”

Manor dedicated the piece to Gretchen Kuhrmann in 2016 in honor of the seventeenth season of Choralis. He tells Allegro that “it was a ‘full circle’ moment for me to hear ‘All My Heart’ at your wonderful Twelfth Night concert: my parents sang with Bob Shafer in the 80s and 90s, then I sang with him in high school for one of his Christmas concerts, and now I've heard his choir sing one of my pieces! Very moving for me.” 

Click here   to view part of this performance, which Trevor Manor posted on his Facebook page. 

The City Singers had a warm and wonderful holiday season, thanks to our fantastic director, Rachel Binger, and our intrepid manager, Lani Kanakry. We were especially delighted to see so many familiar faces in the audience at our performance at The Willard in Washington, D.C. on December 22!
Trevor Manor with Robert Shafer at the post-concert reception
The City Singers at The Willard InterContinental Hotel
Happy Valentine’s Day 
to our friends and patrons!
“Music is the divine way to tell beautiful, poetic things to the heart”
-Pablo Casals
Don’t miss “Baroque and Beyond”

Sunday, May 19, 4:30 PM
National Presbyterian Church
Washington, D.C.

With a new, updated program, featuring:

Giovanni Gabrieli, Viva la musica
Heinrich Schütz, Uppsala Magnificat
George Frideric Handel, excerpts from Messiah
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart , Requiem

Tickets are available now!

Allegro Credits
Editor in Chief/Writer: Emily Hantman Tsai
Contributing Editor: Barbara Greene
Editors/Marketing: Marie Colturi, Zain Shariff, Anne Woodworth
Copy Editor: Kristen Lewandowski
Publisher: Nathaniel Hodges