by Michael Caruso
My final weekend of concerts prior to Christmas Eve and Day brought me to two performances that were both similar and dissimilar. I heard Piffaro’s “Drive the Cold Away!” concert Friday night, Dec. 17, in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. Then, on Saturday evening, Dec. 18, I heard the Philadelphia Boys Choir & Chorale’s “Sing, Choirs of Angels” program in Proclamation Presbyterian Church in Bryn Mawr.
Both offered music-making of the highest order. Both were well attended, with the Boys Choir’s audience packing the church’s main sanctuary with well over 600 attendees. Both took place in sparsely, even austerely under-decorated Presbyterian churches. Yet each offered a different historical take on the festivities celebrated in late December.
Piffaro’s program was more varied in that it combined the pre-Christian festivities marking the Winter Solstice (the darkest day of the year) and the subsequent daily turning toward more and more light with music celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ on Christmas Day drawn from 17th century England. The Philadelphia Boys Choir & Chorale’s concert, on the other hand, focused almost entirely on the celebration of Christmas and did so in a specifically religious fashion. Those who complain that Christmas is often marked with too little emphasis on Christ’s birth and too much focus on Santa Claus and gift-giving certainly would have taken heart with “Sing, Choirs of Angels.” And, in fact, its performance Saturday night elicited ecstatic applause from the overflow audience.
Piffaro’s concert deserves to be placed under another heading, as well – that of “The Show Must Go On” – since that’s precisely what happened Friday night. The originally scheduled tenor, Philip Anderson, was unable to perform Dec. 17. Rather than eliminate from the program the pieces he was intended to sing solo or with soprano Laura Heimes, Piffaro’s own Grant Herreid took over most of the solos and duets, with Heimes essaying the remaining solos in Anderson’s place.
Herreid’s on-the-spot substitution was revelatory. Herried, an instrumentalist most of the time for Piffaro, not only rose to the challenge of singing difficult vocal music with an accomplished vocal artist such as Laura Heimes but showed himself to be a fine musician and stylist, as well. He sang in a clear, bright tone that made for crisp diction and potent phrasing. Heimes delivered her expected creamy tone and eloquent phrasing.
Conducted by Jeffrey Smith and accompanied by a large and sometimes too-loud instrumental ensemble, the Philadelphia Boys Choir & Chorale reminded one and all in attendance Saturday, Dec. 18, that it is, indeed, the finest trained choir in Greater Philadelphia.
With the boys singing by memory and both men and boys never missing a pitch or a beat in some of the most complicated holiday music I’ve ever heard performed in concert, the choir gave a stunning performance in a program of music that convincingly ranged through the centuries. Ensemble never faltered, no matter how complex the arrangements.
Boys from our general area who sang in the concert were Aiden and Ethan Welsh and Pierre Samuel, all of Ambler; Giancarlo Kelly of Chestnut Hill; Alec Lizell of Fort Washington and Justin Booker of Germantown. For more information, call 856-727-9422.
Chestnut Hill’s first concert of the season is scheduled for Sunday, Jan. 2, 4 p.m. in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. Donald Nally will lead The Crossing in a program that includes Bill Brooks’ “Six Medieval Lyrics” for women’s chorus, the American premiere of Erik Esenvalds’ “Long Road” for mixed choir, David Lang’s “I Live in Pain” for women’s chorus and dedicated to Nally, and a new work by Paul Fowler, whose “Breath” was a big hit during last summer’s “Month of Moderns.”
Rounding out the program are works of Danish minimalist Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen and Swedish extended-technique expert Erik Bergman, plus previously composed works by David Lang and Paul Fowler. For ticket information, visit www.crossingchoir.com.