By MICHAEL DOAN
Two regional choruses will stage the world premiere of an all-male version of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ popular cantata “Dona Nobis Pacem” at 5 p.m. on April 8 at the Church of the Epiphany in Washington, D.C.
Both the Washington Men’s Camerata and the Virginia Glee Club from the University of Virginia will unveil this breakthrough work in a concert entitled “Grant Us Peace,” featuring numerous songs of peace in addition to the Vaughan Williams work. Featured along with the all-male chorus will be soprano soloist Rosa Lamoreaux, baritone Christopher Edwards, organist Chris Betts and members of the celebrated Washington Symphonic Brass.
Vaughan Williams’ “Dona Nobis Pacem,” written in 1936, is a plea for peace recalling the memory of World War I amid growing fears of World War II. The composer juxtaposed texts taken from the Latin Mass, Biblical verses, poems by Walt Whitman and a political speech from the British House of Commons.
The work was painstakingly revoiced for a men’s chorus by Ken Harned, a professional musician and music educator who has conducted high school, collegiate and community men’s choruses, and has worked with the Disney Performing Arts program at Disneyland.
“I saw value in this project due to the lack of serious, major, multi-movement works written or arranged for men’s choruses,” he said.
Men’s choruses had been on the wane after many universities turned them into co-ed groups, but the rise of gay men’s choruses in the United States has given impetus to the creation of new, commissioned, large-scale works for male choruses. In particular, Harned was inspired by his experiences singing and working with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles and the Ohio State University Men’s Glee Club.
“When Ken told me about his project 10 years ago, I was skeptical. But after reading his doctoral dissertation and seeing the methodology he used to create a TTBB (tenor, tenor, bass, bass) version of the work, I was convinced,” said Frank Albinder, director the Camerata and the Virginia Glee Club. “I’m thrilled that we get to give the world premiere performance of this valuable new addition to the repertoire for men’s chorus.”
Though much male chorus music has been rearranged from mixed chorus compositions, most of it has been of songs or segments rather than entire works. In recent years, all-male versions have been created of the Duruflé Requiem, John Rutter’s Gloria and Requiem, Francis Poulenc’s Gloria, and Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem.
To create his all-male version of the “Dona Nobis Pacem,” Harned could not simply drop each part one octave. The first tenors often sing the soprano part down an octave and basses will sing pretty much what they sang in the mixed chorus version. The trick comes with the middle parts: the second tenors and baritones. Harned would often give second tenors the original tenor part or the alto part an octave lower. Baritones might fill in a note usually sung by a different part to complete the chords.
Harned also scaled back the orchestration to make the work accessible in a smaller space and for a smaller chorus than often performs the mixed work.
“The new accompaniment for brass septet, organ and percussion should add authenticity and vitality to the performance, while respecting budgetary constraints,” he said.
In creating the male version, Harned said he tried to keep the sense of the piece that the composer intended.
“Vaughan Williams was a major proponent of this practice, arranging his works to suit the needs of various ensembles,” he said. “Vaughan Williams himself created a male version of his own Five Mystical Songs.”
Harned will be present for the concert.
“I am so honored that these choruses have chosen to bring this work to life for the first time. The message of peace resonates with me, and I believe music can help us make the world a better place,” he said.
Tickets, ranging from $15 to $60, can be purchased at camerata.com. The Church of the Epiphany is located near the Metro at 1317 G St. NW.