by Michael Caruso
For the second weekend in a row, the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill played host to the opening of the season of one of Philadelphia’s most popular music ensembles. Two weekends ago, the church hosted the combined forces of Lyric Fest and Choral Arts Philadelphia. This past weekend, it was the turn of Piffaro, the Renaissance Band, launching its 26th season with a concert Saturday night, Oct. 1, entitled “East Meets West: Spanish Pipers in the New World.” Despite the miserable weather and the Phillies playing at home, the concert drew an encouragingly large audience that rewarded the musicians with round after round of applause.
Piffaro fielded an impressive number of musicians — eight including a guest (Annette Bauer) who will be performing with the band all season long. But beyond the mere size of the ensemble, what particularly impressed me was the technical polish of the playing. Ensemble was excellent throughout the performance and tuning – always a problem with the older instruments – was immaculate.
In particular, co-directors Joan Kimball and Robert Wiemken balanced diverse complements with consorts of the same instruments. Some of the scores called for combinations of recorders, sackbuts, dulcian, vihuela, harp and percussion, while others offered the full range of recorders from piccolo to bass. Whereas the latter conjured up the sound of cathedral choirs singing sacred choral music, the former offered a glimpse of the beginnings of the kinds of orchestral scoring that would come to dominate classical music starting with the baroque era from 1600 onward. But whatever the configurations, every piece was played with the level of vivacity that has come to define Piffaro’s character.
The Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter & Paul will present in concert the Choir of Men & Boys of its sister-cathedral in London, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 12. The Choir of Westminster Cathedral, directed by Martin Baker, will perform a program of sacred choral music. Its stop in Philadelphia is one of only seven appearances in the U.S. this season.
Founded in 1903, a decade after the re-establishment of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England following centuries of suppression, the Westminster Cathedral Choir has established itself as the internationally recognized greatest cathedral choir of them all, surpassing in reputation all of its Anglican counterparts. It has recorded countless musical settings of the Mass and other traditional Latin texts by all the great Renaissance masters such as Palestrina and Victoria, and its CDs have won numerous awards.
The Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter & Paul is located at 18th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway on Logan Circle and is one of the only churches in the region designed as a traditional cathedral. The concert is part of a newly inaugurated series, “Concerts at the Cathedral.” Chestnut Hill’s Zach Hemenway (organist and choirmaster at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church) has been named archdiocesan organist. Tickets for the Westminster Cathedral Choir concert are $25 for general admission and $35 for special front seating. Call 215-587-3696 or visit www.CathedralPhilaconcerts.org.
The Opera Company of Philadelphia opened its 2011-12 season with a splendid production of Bizet’s “Carmen” last Friday evening, Sept. 30, in the Academy of Music. Conducted by Corrado Rovaris and directed by David Gately, the mounting continues October 5, 9 and 14.
Alongside its ever-popular score, the main source of the success of this “Carmen” is Gately’s stage direction. It places the opera in 19th century Spain and trusts the libretto’s characterizations and narrative to hold the audience’s interest by offering three-dimensional personalities within the context of heightened human drama. Rovaris’ conducting balanced intense theatricality with lyrical sensitivity, driving the plot forward while allowing his cast to sing meaningfully and beautifully.
Both mezzo Rinat Shaham in the title role and soprano Ailyn Perez as Micaela have local connections. Shaham is an alumna of Curtis Institute of Music while Perez graduated from the Academy of Vocal Arts and lives locally with her husband, tenor Stephen Costello. Shaham’s voice was brooding and sultry while Perez sang in creamy tones, making for a stark contrast between the two women. The children’s chorus sang extremely well in the first act.