by Michael Caruso
This past week provided me with the opportunity to take in three totally different musical experiences. The 2011 summer season of concerts in Pastorius Park got underway Wednesday evening, June 15, with singer/songwriter Jeffrey Gaines. Archi Celesti Philadelphia presented the first professional chamber music recital in the brand new Leonard Mellman Recital Hall in the Willow Grove Branch of Settlement Music School Friday, June 17. And Tempesta di Mare Baroque Orchestra joined forces with The Crossing in a concert Saturday night in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill that boasted two world premieres.
The weather couldn’t have been nicer for the opening of the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s annual series of concerts in Pastorius Park last Wednesday evening. Nor could the music-making Jeffrey Gaines. His slightly edgy but eloquently inflected voice delivered his repertoire of soulful songs with unaffected expressivity.
Gaines is a jazz/folk/pop/rock vocalist who sang a roster of selections that seamlessly fused a broad spectrum of styles with a focused intensity of phrasing and natural clarity of diction. There were no artificial flourishes, no theatrical gestures – just honest delineation of the emotional universe of each song’s narrative.
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the concert was the huge crowd that virtually filled to bursting the natural amphitheater in Pastorius Park. Chestnut Hill remains a vibrant community of people eager to spend a good time with each other enjoying beautiful music. Let’s just hope the weather continues to cooperate!
Donald Nally conducted The Crossing’s second concert in this year’s “Month of Moderns” Saturday night in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. The program of two world premieres and a third choral beauty composed way back in 2005 drew a crowd that literally packed the church’s main sanctuary. Perhaps even more impressively, the vast majority of those who attended the performance stayed afterwards for the reception where they could converse with the performers and the one local musician (Kile Smith) who were in attendance regarding the music and what it meant to them. So much for the notion that modern music doesn’t speak to its listeners!
The two world premieres are part of The Crossing’s “Seneca Sounds” project that commissions contemporary choral composers to set ancient texts to music. The two scores premiered Saturday night here in Chestnut Hill were “The Waking Sun” by Kile Smith and “Thyestes” by Montana-born Kamran Ince. The third (“older” in comparison to the two world premieres) work was “Not no faceless angel” by the Bermuda-born Gabriel Jackson. The three came together to fashion a compelling portrait of musical invention securely placed within the context of the great choral traditions stretching back to Gregorian chant plainsong.
In all three scores, Nally displayed his peerless ear for tuning, balance, phrasing and dynamic intensity ranging from the softest to the loudest singing. The choir sang impeccably and immaculately yet with so much excitement and inspiration that the performance sounded spontaneous.
Settlement Music School’s new branch in Willow Grove hosted its first professional chamber music recital Friday, June 17, with the inaugural performance in its Leonard Mellman Recital Hall of the Archi Celesti Philadelphia ensemble. The event was sponsored by the Leopold Mozart Academy of Elkins Park and featured violinist Ellen DePasquale, violinists/violists Jason DePue and Lorenzo Raval, cellists Mirjam Ingolfsson and Rajil Bicolli, and pianist Mikhail Yanovitsky. The program consisted of two stellar works of the chamber music repertoire – Franz Schubert’s “String Quintet in C major” and Johannes Brahms’ “Piano Quintet in F minor,” but the star of the evening was in many ways the Mellman Recital Hall, itself.
Seating nearly 400 and boasting two vintage Steinway concert grand pianos, ample backstage facilities, and a large, well-lit parking lot, the hall most importantly offers a spacious stage and excellent acoustics. The sound, even when sitting off to one side or the other, is bright yet resonant. Add to that virtually perfect sightlines from every seat, and you’ve got a perfect venue for chamber music.
The playing was very impressive tonally. All five musicians blended their individual voices with expert sensitivity, none either overwhelming the others or fading into obscurity. But unusually scored works such as this string quartet almost always require a seasoned quartet joined by a trusted colleague to interpret it efficaciously. Without a long history of strong leadership to sustain and maintain a steady pulse, expressivity can easily (and often does) wander into excess and indulgence. That’s what happened Friday night in the first and second movements. Ritardandos in the former sometimes slowed down too much while the overall tempo in the latter tended to drag. Fortunately, the pace and the spirit picked up markedly and effectively in the third and fourth movements.