by Michael Caruso
In a marvelous coincidence, the first Sunday of the month coincided with Palm Sunday this year, so the regularly scheduled Choral Evensong at the Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Chestnut Hill, enabled the parish to open Holy Week with Anglicanism’s signature service. Created by the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, Choral Evensong combines portions of the ancient Roman Vespers and Compline to produce one of the loveliest musical meditations on the end of the Christian Sabbath day.
St. Martin’s Choral Evensong was particularly appropriate for Palm Sunday, when the narrative of Christ’s Passion is read at the morning liturgy. Its musical and spiritual highpoint came at the Offertory with the singing of Benjamin Britten’s “Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac.”
The Anglo-Catholic 20th century master was at his traditional and innovative best setting the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, his son of the Covenant, at God’s behest. The Old Testament story is, according to Christian theology, the prefiguring of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross on Good Friday.
Britten set his score for tenor, alto and piano. He employed a highly melodic yet harmonically austere tonal idiom for “Abraham and Isaac.” No less a triumph was the rendition “Abraham and Isaac” performed Sunday afternoon by tenor Wilson Jeffreys, alto Alyson Harvey and pianist Erik Meyer, St. Martin’s music director. Jeffrey’s clear timbres blended beautifully with Harvey’s higher yet tawny chest tones.
Not to be overlooked was the work of St. Martin’s choir in the singing of Psalm 103, the “Magnificat” and the “Nunc Dimittis” in unaccompanied Anglican chant. Ensemble was exemplary, pitch was secure and balance were immaculate. Meyer was no less impressive at the organ in Reger’s “Passion” at the start of the service and Bach’s “Aus Tiefer Noth” at the close.
Piffaro, the Renaissance Band, brought its 26th season and the month of March to a close by visiting Chestnut Hill Saturday, March 31. The concert was entitled “East Meets West Part 2: Musical Sojourn in the New World.” Piffaro was joined by the Rose Ensemble choir. Saturday night’s performance was heard in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill.
The program was a continuation of Piffaro’s survey of the musical interaction between Spain and its colonies in North, Central and South America. Although Spain was an empire in Europe well before Christopher Columbus came here, it was her holdings in the New World that made Spain the wealthiest and most powerful nation in 16th century Europe.
Piffaro’s special genius has always been its ability to energize what might be nothing more than a dry music history lecture by transforming it into a light-hearted entertainment. Striking a balance between the sacred and the profane, the weekend’s concerts offered an engaging glimpse into the musical world of 16th century Spanish America.
Co-directors Joan Kimball and Robert Wiemkin struck gold by inviting the Rose Ensemble to join the band. The choir added immeasurably to the performance of music of intense emotional appeal and sophistication. The singers’ bright tones blended beautifully with the tart timbres of Piffaro’s woodwind and brass instruments. Textures were clear, resonant and able to express not merely the immediate meanings of the texts but the fullness of the culture behind them.
James Conlon guest-conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in concerts March 22 to 24 in Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. In remarks made before the start of Saturday night’s performance, he explained the genesis of the program to his sold-out audience: the tonality of D, both major and minor. All five works played have either D minor or D major as their key signature, and yet one could hardly have heard a more varied set of scores and renditions given them.
Conlon — music director of the Los Angeles Opera, the Ravinia Festival of the Chicago symphony and the Cincinnati May Festival — cobbled together an “operatic suite” from the overtures of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” “Idomeneo” and “Le nozze di Figaro” to open the concert, then followed them with the Salzburg master’s “Prague Symphony No. 38” to fill out the roster’s first half. After intermission, Conlon conducted Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 7.” The whole idea was one of those rare concepts that not only look interesting on paper but that sound fantastic in concert.
Although there were moments of imperfect ensemble Saturday evening, Conlon elicited from the Philadelphia Orchestra playing that was stylishly beautiful. He caught the character, either dramatic or comedic, of the opera to follow in all three of the overtures.