Arts Desk

Norman Scribner Gets a Modest Send-Off

The Choral Arts Society’s tribute to Norman Scribner went on a little long, fitting for someone who announced his retirement a full two years before stepping down. But Scribner didn’t revel in it. As CAS’s founder and D.C.’s senior choral director, he could have made his farewell all about himself. Instead, on Wednesday, he trudged to the front of the nave at National Cathedral and announced in his gentle deadpan, “My name is Norman Scribner and I’ll be your host for tonight.”

That set the tone for the rest of the show, which Scribner used to highlight other choruses, conductors, vocal soloists, and accompanists. Cathedral music director Michael McCarthy, City Choir director Robert Shafer, and Heritage Signature Chorale director Stanley Thurston all took turns at the podium. Conspicuously absent was Julian Wachner or anyone from the Washington Chorus, which along with CAS and the Cathedral Choral Society rounds out the unofficial top three choruses in the area (at least measured in budgets). But Shafer, as Wachner’s predecessor, had an ugly departure from TWC before starting his own chorus. So if it was a snub, it was apparently meant to keep the peace for the night.

Wednesday’s grab-bag program featured a bit of everything that audiences will remember from Scribner’s tenure: Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, which the Choral Arts Society performed in Moscow’s Red Square in 1993; a Verdi aria by Janice Chandler Eteme; selections from CAS’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. concert; plenty of devotional music. The evening’s apogee came halfway through with three high-energy gospel numbers by the Heritage Signature Chorale and pianist and singer Ralph Alan Herndon. After all the swaying and handclaps, Mozart’s Magic Flute was a letdown.

There were tears among his choristers by the end, but Scribner himself displayed little emotion, even when he literally passed the baton to new guy Scott Tucker. In a performing arts world where big egos are often on display, Scribner was never larger than life. He was the man who took the stage and got down to business, preferring to let the music speak for itself.

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  • Liza

    I was lucky to be at Maestro Scribner's farewell concert, which was, indeed, very moving. One thing I want to comment on is the absence of anyone from The Washington Chorus at the concert. I happen to know that Maestro Wachner has a full time job in New York City and is currently preparing for a world premiere of Paola Prestini's opera "Oceanic Verses", which will be performed next Saturday at the Kennedy Center and also in New York at the River to River festival around the same time. Though I am not aware of the real reason of Maestro Wachner's absence, if I were to guess why he was not there, I would assume that there was simply not enough of him to go around. In my humble opinion, Maestro Wachner's tight schedule is more likely the reason why TWC did not perform at Maestro Scribner's farewell concert than is an avoidance of conflict with Maestro Shafer. I wish, though, TWC would have been there - as someone who was once affiliated with the group I missed them at this important event.

  • music lover

    I agree with everything that Liza said. Furthermore,all of the other conductors received personal invitations I am sure. Did Maestro Wachner? He admires Scribner greatly and would never do anything to insult him. This paper ought to be ashamed of itself! The Christmas Smackdown article that was written last year was garbage enough in which you pitted the two conductor against each other. I do hope you get your comeuppance for this horrible account of a wonderful evening!

  • choral singer

    When the City Paper several months ago tried to stir up come conflict between the various city choruses with what appeared to me a rather tasteless and thoughtless put-down of Maestro Scribner (i.e. playing the familiar Washington ratings game), as a singer in The Washington Chorus, I recall our conductor, Julian Wachner, reacting rather angrily to that article with some remarks about it prior to our next rehearsal. In effect, he noted that in an age when ALL choruses can easily become endangered species, we need each other and sing together in a cooperative framework. I also recall when we sang a concert at the National Presbyterian Church soon after becoming conductor of The Washington Chorus, Julian specifically asked former conductor Robert Shafer, who was in the audience, to rise and receive a rousing round of applause. Based on these strong memories, and knowledge of Mr. Wachner's travel schedule these days, I am reasonably assured that had he been able to attend, he would have been there. Some of my finest moments of choral singing in Washington, D.C., have come from such cooperative joining of our choruses, most recently, in a Kennedy Center performance of the Mahler 8th Symphony several years ago, when singers from several choruses sang harmoniously together under Mr. Scribner's baton. Competitive gamesmanship is an outdated concept in a post-classical age when classical music itself is frequently an endangered species (note the demise of radio stations playing such music in recent years).