by Michael Caruso
Although I’ve never had the privilege of living in Chestnut Hill, I’ve felt like an honorary Chestnut Hiller ever since 1986, when I started writing for the Chestnut Hill Local. That’s never been more the case than it was last weekend, when I attended three concerts in two Chestnut Hill churches, spending Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoon on the Hill.
The threesome got underway Friday night in the Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields with Vox Renaissance Consort’s “A Renaissance Noel.” Not to be outdone, Piffaro, the Renaissance Band, followed Saturday evening with “Coming Together in Light” in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. And then right on Piffaro’s heels in the same church Sunday afternoon, Tempesta di Mare, Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra, performed “Leipzig Shortlist,” with music by Telemann, Fasch, Graupner and Bach.
Although both the Vox and Piffaro concerts had much in common — their repertoire was drawn from the late Renaissance and early Baroque eras, and both combined vocal and instrumental music — each projected its own special character, and that character was enhanced by the choice of venue.
Whereas Piffaro’s Saturday night performance was a fairly straightforward concert and took place in the austerely unadorned sanctuary of Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church, Vox’s program was as much a visual event as it was aural. It was given in the sumptuous Gothic Revival setting of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, perhaps the loveliest church in all of Greater Philadelphia. Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church’s acoustics are so exquisitely resonant that the simplicity of its appearance helps you focus on the sound. On the other hand, it’s the “look” of St. Martin’s Church that joins forces with its acoustics to produce an all-encompassing concert experience.
A major part of any Vox concert is the costumes the singers wear, meticulously accurate recreations of the clothes worn by aristocrats of the Renaissance, noble ladies and gentlemen whose hobbies included singing the newly composed motets and madrigals of the Italian masters. For its Christmas concert, however, Vox’s founder and music director Valentin Radu always enhances the programs with a broad spectrum of sacred choral scores of the Advent season. Such music reveals the serious foundation to the seasonal festivities.
This year’s roster of sacred choral works was particularly impressive, and all were sung with exceptional rhythmic vitality and fullness of tone. Soprano Sarah Davis’ contributions were especially noteworthy. So, too, were the contributions by the period instrumental complement on hand, most notably recorder player Rainer Beckmann, gamba player Vivian Barton Dozor and Roxborough harpsichordist Bronwyn Fix-Keller.
As is often the case in a Piffaro concert, Saturday evening’s program included something extra. Added to traditional Advent selections, the group included a section entitled “Songs of the Sephardim for Chanukah” and another called “Into the Light.” Both groups reminded the audience of the importance in both the Jewish and Christian theological traditions of bringing light into the darkness of winter and of how music was an integral part in both traditions. In fact, Vox’s program the night before included “Maoz Tzur,” a traditional Chanukah tune.
This theme was even more forcefully brought out in the section entitled “Music from Mantua” with vocal and instrumental scores by Salamone Rossi, a celebrated Jewish composer whose works were not lost in the subsequent persecution of the Jews that shamelessly convulsed so much of Europe at the end of the Middle Ages. His settings of the Psalms are powerful yet touching treasures of both Judaism and Christianity.
Piffaro’s concert was also enlivened by the presence of several guest artists. Chief among these was soprano Julianne Baird, whose voice has darkened as she has matured without losing any of its expressive agility. Bryan Duerfeldt was the winner of Piffaro’s Competition for Young Recorder Players, and he joined season guest recorder player Annette Bauer in offering the full spectrum of recorder timbres.
Look for my review of Tempesta di Mare’s concert in next week’s column.
Eleven singers from Northwest Philadelphia (four from Chestnut Hill) will be a part of the Mendelssohn Club’s annual Christmastime concert Saturday, Dec. 10, at 5 p.m., in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 22 East Chestnut Hill Ave. They are: tenor Ken Albert, alto Ashley Borders, alto Eleanor Elkinton, bass Tom Elkinton, bass Adam Grundt, tenor John Luttenberger, alto Jaclyn Leone, soprano Rebekah Reddi, alto Maria Sisto, soprano Rebecca Thornburgh and soprano Christine Vuono.
Longtime music director Alan Harler will conduct the 100-plus-member choir and the Mendelssohn Brass in “Golden Voices of the East,” a program of music derived from the liturgical traditions of the Eastern Orthodox Churches of Greece, Russia and the Slavic nations. For ticket information visit www.mmchorus.org.