by MICHAEL CARUSO
It was a busy musical weekend that enabled me to take in three concerts that spanned the gamut of the standard repertoire. The Buxtehude Consort came to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, Saturday night, April 14, and reached back to the beginnings of the classical canon in its program of “Passion Music of the Baroque.” The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia continued the trajectory through the classical and romantic periods in its pair of performances in the Kimmel Center’s intimate Perelman Theater, while the Philadelphia Orchestra propelled the continuum from the early romantics into the 20th century with its trio of concerts in the vastly improved Verizon Hall.
The Buxtehude Consort, founded and directed by baritone John Fowler, is in residence in St. Paul’s Church and has given several fine performances there and in center city this season. Saturday evening’s program consisted of six vocal works plus one purely instrumental selection from the late 17th and early 18th centuries in Germany. All seven works were intended by their composers to be performed during the time leading up to and throughout Holy Week between Palm Sunday and Easter. The tone of the music and its rendition was somber but not lugubrious, serious yet not pedantic. Fowler and his colleagues chose well their roster of pieces.
Alongside Fowler, the Consort included soprano Clara Rottsolk, mezzo Jenifer Smith, violinists Daniel Elyar and Marikal Holmqvist, cellist Katie Rietman, theorboist Kevin Payne and organist Parker Kitterman.
The concert opened with Georg Philipp Telemann’s “Ich will den Kreuzweg gerne gehen” featuring Fowler and the period instruments complement. Fowler was especially effective projecting the mournful yet lyrical mood of the music, and the instrumental accompaniment was played sensitively.
The Telemann was followed by Dietrich Buxtehude’s “Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe” with Rottsolk and the ensemble. She offered a clear yet creamy tone supported by excellent breath control and a dazzling command over historical stylistic authenticity.
Violinist Holmqvist was mightily impressive in Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber’s “Crucifixion” movement from the “Mystery Sonatas.” The piece is something of a series of variations constructed in the form of an ever-building crescendo, and she achieved a stunning cumulative triumph at the score’s climax.
There was a time when the standard repertoire barely ventured before Haydn and certainly never before Bach, Handel and Vivaldi. Ensembles such as the Buxtehude Consort have worked hard assuring audiences that there is a cornucopia of treasures in the 17th century.
The weekend programs of both the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia followed the traditional overture-concerto-symphony format. For the Philadelphians, it was Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” Overture, Bartok’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” and Stravinsky’s symphonic “Petrushka;” for the Chamber Orchestra, it was Sibelius’ “Valse triste,” Schumann’s “Cello concerto” and Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 7.” Somewhat surprisingly, it was the Chamber Orchestra’s efforts that were the more satisfying.
Of particular distinction was conductor Dirk Brosse’s take on Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and how different it sounds when played by a smaller ensemble (than say, the Philadelphia Orchestra) in a smaller hall (such as Verizon Hall). Brosse and his musicians caught the tart timbres, scintillating rhythms and thematic invention of this now two-centuries-old masterpiece, making it sound as if it were newly conceived.
Curtis alumna Sara Sant’Ambrogio was the soloist in Schumann’s “Cello Concerto.” Her playing was compelling but not especially warming. Brosse led a lovely, lilting rendition of Sibelius’ “Valse triste” to open the concert and prefaced the Beethoven with a short concert excerpt from a film score composed by Japan’s Yuko Uebeyashi that was absolutely delightful.
Rounding out the weekend’s survey of the standard repertoire, the Hungarian Gilbert Varga guest-conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in the Mendelssohn-Bartok-Stravinsky. The affair didn’t look all that convincing on paper; unfortunately it was even less so in concert.
Varga took the slowest tempo for Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” Overture I’ve ever heard in concert. His interpretation was tepid, and the playing it elicited was flaccid.
John Romeri will conduct the debut concert of the Archdiocesan Choir at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, April 22, in the Roman Catholic Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter & Paul on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The new choir combines singers from the Cathedral’s resident choir with singers drawn from 40 Catholic parishes across the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The program’s featured work is Mozart’s “Coronation” Mass, along with other pieces of sacred choral music by Handel and Beethoven. Among those accompanying the choir will be archdiocesan organist Zachary Hemenway, music director of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill.
For more information, call 215-587-3696 or visit www.CathedralPhilaConcerts.org.