Review | PostClassical Ensemble opens the new year with ‘Amazing Grace’

“Welcome to heaven tonight” may seem like an ostentatious way for a conductor to greet his audience. But Angel Gil-Ordóñez was just setting the scene for “Amazing Grace.”

On Wednesday night at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, Gil-Ordóñez and his PostClassical Ensemble presented a program of uplifting choral and orchestral works the group hopes to establish as a sturdy New Year’s tradition. Subtitled “In Paradisum,” the concert had its sights firmly set on heaven above — and even managed to deliver us there a few times.

Last year’s inaugural installment of “Amazing Grace,” curated by Stanley J. Thurston of the Heritage Signature Chorale, packaged a selection of spirituals, a Bach cantata (“Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben”) and works by Evelyn Simpson Curenton, William Grant Still and Adolphus Hailstork (who that night also received PCE’s first American Roots Artist Award).

This year’s follow-up centered its program on the sound and selections of guest curator and D.C.-born composer Jeffrey Mumford, who received his own PCE American Roots Artist Award on Wednesday. Mumford’s concerto for cello, “of radiances blossoming in expanding air,” served as the centerpiece of a program that also included a trio of short pieces by George Walker, a passage from the paradise-found fourth movement of Mahler’s 4th; the finale of Gabriel Fauré’s “Requiem” (i.e. “In Paradisum”); Margaret Bonds’s skyward-soaring “Aria” from her seven-movement “Credo”; and Luciano Berio’s “O King,” an experimental homage to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

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Bookended by singalong performances of “Amazing Grace” (led by soprano Katerina Burton and buttressed by Andre Leonard’s CAAPA Chorale), it was an evening of remarkable variety and astonishing cohesion — each piece cast compelling shadows and caught surprising reflections.

The CAPPA singers opened the program with two spare and spectral choral works by Walker — “Stars” (a setting of a poem by Susan D. Kenney) and “O Praise the Lord” (a setting of Psalm 118). I was most taken by the chorus later in the program, when soprano Alia Waheed led a gleaming account of “In Paradisum,” the luminous conclusion to Fauré’s “Requiem.” She was as sure a guide to heaven as you could ask for, and the chorus skillfully navigated Fauré’s winding harmonic corridors.

Another Walker work, “Lyric for Strings,” offered the strings of the PCE a chance to shine. Gil-Ordoñez — one of my favorite conductors in town to watch — achieved breathtaking delicacy and clarity from the violins, and a tactile grit from the cellos and bass. He’s got an infectious enthusiasm for both the music and the musicians playing it. (Several times Wednesday, the maestro was the first to holler a “Bravo!” at his players at the conclusion of a piece.)

Though another artist is coded into the musical DNA of Mumford’s concerto — its motivic recurrences of D, E minor, B minor and A refer to the name of its dedicatee, cellist Deborah Pae — Wednesday’s performance by 2023 Pierre Fournier Award-winner Annie Jacobs-Perkins felt as hard-wired as Pae’s 2020 premiere (which you can hear on YouTube).

Mumford’s music is concerned — almost obsessively — with tone and timbre, the limits of a given instrument’s capabilities and the edges of the audible. But he’s also a composer with a distinctly optic sensibility — the titles of his works often signal times of day and qualities of light: “glimmering air,” “cavernous dusk,” “evaporating dawns,” “a diffuse light that knows no particular hour.”

And listening to his concerto unfold over 20 or so minutes, it’s easy to believe Mumford started his artistic career wanting to be a painter. Jacob-Perkins cut razor-sharp lines with her cello over scrubby brushstrokes of strings, hard plucks of harp and tensely bowed xylophone bars. A brisk and crisp conversation ensued between the soloist and the ensemble, interrupted by outbursts of clarinet and bleats of brass. Rich passages of harmonic concord suddenly split into straying sonorities, as though pulled apart by a prism. Toward the end of the program, Jacob-Perkins returned to perform “Let us breathe,” a wrenching soliloquy for cello, composed by Mumford after the killing of George Floyd.

Though Mumford was the man of the hour and a half, Wednesday was also a big night for Burton, whose stylishly sculpted soprano delivered several of the night’s biggest moments. Her deft handling of the “Heavenly Life” finale of Mahler’s 4th Symphony showcased her control and dramatic precision; her “Aria” from Bonds’s “Credo” demonstrated her powerful high register; and her elastic phonetics in Berio’s challenging “O King” makes clear she’s a singer with courage to match her grace.

The concert closed as it opened, with “Amazing Grace.” This time, it was a lightly guided singalong of Curenton’s heavily recast version, an arrangement that sends its singers through long stretches of unfamiliar harmonic territory before making a climactic return to the hymn’s more familiar shape. Like the evening itself, it was a little journey from uncertainty to hope — a good way to start the new year, and a tradition worth repeating.

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