Review | At Washington National Cathedral, Marin Alsop delivers a propulsive Ninth

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It’s no small feat to fill Washington National Cathedral, whether we’re talking about people or sound. But a sold-out performance on Sunday by the National Orchestral Institute + Festival Philharmonic managed, rather gloriously, to do both.

Based at the University of Maryland, the NOI+F is an intensive month-long program designed for classical musicians at the very beginning of their careers. It provides master classes, seminars, workshops and performances such as Sunday evening’s concert, led by institute music director Marin Alsop.

(On July 3, the Institute will stage its “NOI+F Takeover,” an all-day program of performances at the National Gallery of Art.)

The program paired Jennifer Higdon’s atmospheric, elegiac “blue cathedral” (which has received more than 1,000 performances as it approaches its 25th anniversary) with Beethoven’s own architectural wonder, his “Symphony No. 9 in D Minor” of 1824, for which the orchestra was joined by the Heritage Signature Chorale (directed by Stanley J. Thurston) and a quartet of soloists.

Of special note with this particular account of the Ninth was its replacement of Friedrich Schiller’s 1785 poem “Ode to Joy” with a new English text by former U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith. Originally commissioned by Carnegie Hall for a program celebrating the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, Smith’s adaptation of Schiller’s poem widens its scope while (for the most part) retaining its themes.

Anyone who has ever heard Jennifer Higdon’s “blue cathedral” has likely wondered for a moment how it might sound in such a setting. A musical remembrance of her younger brother Andrew Blue (who died in 1998 of skin cancer), it’s also an attempt by Higdon to evoke “a journey through a glass cathedral in the sky” — an effect achieved through a sustained lightness and translucence in the music’s textures.

Alsop gently roused the piece — its rustle of chimes and bleary strings. The flute (representing Jennifer, and played by Honor Hickman) appears first, trailed by clarinet (Andrew, played by Yoomin Sung), their melodies pointing up at the clouds. As the piece builds, it broadens, and Alsop kept tight control, leaving room for individual instruments to push through a glowing mass of strings and woodwinds. In the end, Higdon returns to a game of hide-and-seek that’s both playful and mournful, with strings that sag like willows and a low mist of returning/departing chimes.

It was a fine performance against steep acoustic odds. You’d never guess it was Alsop’s first time conducting here.

The conditions of the cathedral may have worked more to Higdon’s advantage than Beethoven’s. Though Alsop masterfully marshaled focus and ferocity from her players, the spectacular heights of the space sometimes made for a sonic soup — long tails of reverb that complicated crisp intentions; fluid passages of strings often frothed into the equivalent of white water; and a powerful Heritage Signature Chorale couldn’t help but overrun the orchestra’s banks.

Still, the opening of the first movement (“Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso”) sounded particularly thrilling rushing through the nave like the forefront of a flash flood. Splendid flutes and oboes left dramatic trails, as did its declarative finish, which hung in the air and commanded a respectful silence.

Just after the iconic opening outburst of the second movement, Alsop put finger to lips, treading lightly with the orchestra into its thickening thicket before letting its free, whirling energy take over (i.e. the “Molto Vivace”). Bright plumes of flute lit up the place before a whiter-knuckled repeat that sounded like it was in a hurry. The cathedral blurs, but it also deconstructs: I’ve never heard the trumpets in this movement sound quite so distant (or full of character), or a single timpani sound so cavernous (or more like a void). I especially enjoyed nimble (if overly eager) playing from the horns and clarinets. Toward the movement’s end, things started to fray, and Beethoven’s call for unity felt suddenly more pressing.

Concertmaster Sultan Rakhmatullin brought naturalistic phrasing and endearing sensitivity to third movement solos, with Alsop keeping the back-and-forth between strings and woodwinds disarmingly conversational. Here, the space felt uncannily suited to the music’s slow dissolves and diffuse colors — the horns and clarinets were especially entrancing.

The chorus of responsorial cellos that open the fourth movement was exquisite — both ghostly and urgent, present and not. From here, the “Ode to Joy” theme begins its journey through articulations — not least of which is Smith’s.

Through the hand of the former poet laureate, Schiller’s call for all men to unite as brothers is refined into a more explicit desire to “bid us past such fear and hate.” His invitation to those who know “abiding friendships” is extended by Smith to anyone whose “spirit is invested/ In another’s sense of worth.” And Schiller’s embrace of millions is amplified and updated to terms decisively more grim: “Battered planet, home of billions/ our long shadow stalks your face.” Smith turns Schiller’s gaze from the “starry canopy” to the “fractured” planet below, and begs for forgiveness.

Of course, you might not have known any of this had you just been sitting and listening: The new text wasn’t supplied on paper nor projected through titles on any of the many screens installed around the nave. Smith’s adaptation is melodically (even syllabically) faithful to the original, but despite beautiful turns and ensemble singing from soprano Adia Evans, mezzo-soprano Jazmine Olwalia, tenor Lawrence Barasa Kiharangwa and bass Kevin Short, the words themselves were lost in the sonic wash of the cathedral.

Short’s introduction (“O friend, my heart has tired/ Of such darkness./ Now it vies for joy”) was a stunning display of his instrument and its ability to find every corner of the cathedral. An energized Kiharangwa delivered a steely solo over the movement’s “Turkish March.” Evans and Olwalia each gave brilliant turns, their voices often coiling into a golden braid. And the Heritage Signature Chorale illuminated the long choral corridors of the movement’s core — a monumental sound.

With everything turned to 11, Alsop and company barreled through the finish — at barely 60 minutes, this was a conspicuously brisk Ninth. And the sound of the extended ovation met the orchestra’s energy: With 2,300 tickets sold, this was the largest concert the cathedral has presented in at least a decade. Environmental penitence and fuzzy edges aside, the “Ode to Joy” remained the ecstatic cataclysm it can’t help but be.

(If you missed this concert and it’s just not summer without a dose of the 9th, the National Symphony Orchestra will offer its own account on July 12 at Wolf Trap, led by conductor Ruth Reinhardt and featuring violinist Njioma Grevious, soprano Keely Futterer, mezzo-soprano Gabrielle Beteag, tenor Ricardo Garcia, baritone Blake Denson and the Cathedral Choral Society led by music director Steven Fox.)

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