When Nicholas Alexander Brown was walking down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC yesterday afternoon following a lunchtime concert he had just conducted at The Library of Congress’s genteel Coolidge Theatre, two young women called out to him from outside a café to congratulate him on his success.
I wasn’t surprised: Brown is the sort of person who quite regularly gets accosted in public places around Capitol Hill. The twenty-something Library of Congress musicologist and administrator cuts an atypical figure at the Library. He’s about 40 years younger than the average employee, several inches taller and much better dressed. Yesterday he was sporting a charcoal-colored Hugo Boss suit that looked like it had been painted on him.
One of the things that Brown, a singer, French horn player and conductor, took on when he started working at the Library just over a year ago was the unglamorous job of conducting the Library of Congress Chorale.
Composed entirely of volunteer singers from the ranks of the Library’s many departments, the SATB Chorale is a marvelous relic. It’s probably one of very few genuine workers’ choruses left in this country. The group rehearses once a week for an hour or so at lunchtime. The majority of its members are, at a guess, well over 50 and many of them don’t read music.
Despite the minimal time available to Brown to rehearse with his singers, the Chorale managed to pull off — with aplomb — an ambitious program of classic opera choruses yesterday that consisted of music in several different languages including English, German, French, Italian, Russian.
The ensemble’s intonation and articulation were fantastic throughout. I could make out almost every word that was sung. There were great dynamic contrasts and best of all was the variety of mood throughout the hour-long program. The group was suitably furious when they performed the “Chorus of the Furies” from Act II of Gluck’s Orphee et Eurydice, lyrical when it came to Verdi’s rousing “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco, full of pomp for “Gloire a Didon” from Les Troyens by Berlioz, rambunctious during Tchaikovsky’s “Chorus and Dance of the Peasants” from Act I of Eugene Onegin, and hushed for the “Humming Chorus” from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.
Brown needs to encourage his forces to sing with a fuller, rounder tone. The overall sound was a little thin most of the time. But all in all, the Chorale gave the audience a fantastic lunchtime concert. The experience made me wish that workers’ chorales would come back in vogue.