Six months after the death of J. Reilly Lewis, in June, his cheerful presence will be felt powerfully at the City Choir of Washington concert on Sunday, Nov. 6.
“We were like brothers,” Musical Director Robert Shafer says sadly, dedicating the concert of Brahms German Requiemand his own Ubi Caritas to the memory of the long-time music director of the Cathedral Choral Society and the Washington Bach Consort.
Shafer hopes the Washington choral community will come to honor this giant figure in the life of musical Washington, who will be so sorely missed.
Shafer wrote Ubi Caritas specifically for Lewis’ 60th birthday in 2004, with its words, in Latin, starting with “Where charity and love prevail, there is God.” Says Shafer “It talks about community coming together and worshiping God with a pure and tender heart. It is about love and kindness and charity.”
At the concert, the City Choir director will talk about his colleague, with whom he was the last of the “old guard” of Washington choral directors. Their relationship goes back 45 years to the time when Lewis observed rehearsals Shafer was conducting at the Madison High School in Vienna, Va. Lewis began his career as a virtuoso organist but became interested in choral conducting in his late 20s. He went on to form the Washington Bach Consort and was also the music director of the Cathedral Choral Society for over 30 years.
“Over the years our families became close, starting when Sharon and I moved to his native Arlington back in the ’70s,” Shafer said. He also persuaded Lewis to study with the musical legend Nadia Boulanger in Paris, who taught Shafer over many summers.
When the 71-year-old Lewis died, “it came as a shock to all of us,” said Shafer, who is 70. “He had been to our rehearsal the week before he died, and I told him that I was retiring from Shenandoah University and Conservatory so that I could compose more and devote myself more fully to the City Choir. He told me that he wasn’t ever going to retire from anything. He planned to keep going until he was 80, at the least.”
Shafer says that the Brahms German Requiem, though scheduled long before Lewis’ death, is a fitting tribute, what he calls a “human requiem.” The fourth movement, with the phrase “How lovely is thy dwelling place,” reflects love and warmth and is well known among churches the world over. He notes that the requiem has no “Dies Ire” movement that talks of hell fire and damnation, terror and fear of judgment. “Instead, the piece reflects the reassurance and love of God,” Shafer says.
Making this Brahms German Requiem different is the intimate chamber orchestration, which highlights the voices of the choir and emphasizes the essential musical underpinnings of this most treasured work. Soloists are Haley Hodges, soprano, and James Shaffran, baritone.
The concert, at National Presbyterian Church in Washington, begins at 4:30 p.m. Nov. 6. All members of the audience are invited to a coffee reception in Stone Hall immediately after the concert. To buy tickets, click the Buy Tickets button at www.citychoir.org.