by MICHAEL CARUSO
My season of classical music performances got underway last weekend with a triple play. I caught the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s production of Puccini’s “La Boheme” in the Academy of Music Friday night, heard Choral Arts Philadelphia (including seven local singers) perform Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “All-Night Vigil” at the Roman Catholic Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter & Paul Saturday night, and rounded out the weekend in Chestnut Hill with the first Choral Evensong of the season at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
When Queen Elizabeth I of England established the Church of England as a reformed body separate from the Roman Catholic Church, she commissioned the writing of the “39 Articles of Faith” to set forth the doctrines and practices of the new church. Of these, Choral Evensong was and remains the most popular.
The glory of Evensong has always been its musical settings. Zachary Hemenway, music director of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, has become a master of fashioning a reflective musical experience at the highest level, one that may be unmatched in Greater Philadelphia.
Sunday afternoon’s Choral Evensong for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels was splendid. St. Paul’s choir of more than 50 singers, mostly volunteers, gave superb interpretations to Michael Sitton’s “Locus Iste,” Charles Villiers Stanford’s Anglican chant setting of Psalm 103, Herbert Howells’ “Magnificat” and “Nunc Dimittis,” and Percy Whitlock’s “Be Still, My Soul.”
The choir’s diction was so crisp and clean that the listener didn’t have to read the printed program to know the text. The overall sound of the ensemble was seamless and strong, but that produced by the soprano section was particularly admirable. Hemenway presided over a chorus that rivals any in the region.
Most classical music lovers think of either the piano or the symphony when they hear or read the name of the late 19th and early 20th century Russian master Sergei Rachmaninoff because he composed some of the most beautiful piano and orchestral scores in the standard repertoire. Yet long after he left his homeland, Rachmaninoff never forgot the Russian Orthodox Christian liturgies he grew up hearing, and he lavished his considerable melodic and harmonic gifts on that liturgy never more evocatively than in his “All-Night Vigil.”
Its musical color starts in darkness but transforms into lightness, conveying a mysterious spirituality. Its slow-moving harmonies for unaccompanied choir should be heard in a cathedral, where the reverberation time approaches or even surpasses three seconds.
Center City Philadelphia boasts only a few churches that feature such a long reverberation time, the best of which is the Roman Catholic Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter & Paul on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Saturday night’s concert by Choral Arts Philadelphia was the first of its 2012-13 season. Local members of the chorus include alto Amey Hutchins, soprano Laura Nagle, soprano Ellen O’Brien, and tenor Dylan Steinberg, all of Chestnut Hill; bass Ryan Sheaffer of West Mt. Airy, alto Jennifer Smith of Germantown and bass Bill Woods of Roxborough.
Music director Matthew Glandorf led the choir in an expressive rendition of the “All-Night Vigil” Saturday night before a large and supportive audience. Although Choral Arts is approximately one-third the size is was when the late Sean Deibler led its previous performance of the score two decades ago, Glandorf elicited a full-bodied choral sound that filled the Cathedral’s open space, setting off its reverberation. All that was missing was more heft from the bass section and a few Russian Orthodox and Gregorian chants as a prelude to the “All-Night Vigil” to make for a fuller musical evening.
Friday night’s opening of the Opera Company of Philadelphia production of “La Boheme” drew an audience that filled the Academy of Music’s nearly 3,000 seats and gave the performers round after round of hearty applause. Conductor Corrado Rovaris elicited exciting playing from the OCP Orchestra and dramatic singing from his cast, which included the Chestnut Hill-based Pennsylvania Girlchoir.
The evening’s biggest success among the cast was tenor Bryan Hymel as Rodolfo, the struggling poet whose love for the seamstress Mimi isn’t sufficient to save her from consumption. Hymel sang with tonal beauty and a depth of characterization that was breathtaking and heart-wrenching. The applause following his individual arias and at the curtain rocked the old house. Only soprano Norah Amsellem disappointed as Mimi. She failed to cut the figure of not-quite-so-innocent youth the role requires, and her singing had a hard edge that was most unattractive.
“La Boheme” continues Oct. 5 and 7 at the Academy of Music. Opening night’s performance will be broadcast on a large screen Oct. 6 at 7 p.m. on Independence Mall. Visit www.operaphila.org for more information.