by Michael Caruso
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, celebrated the Feast of All Saints with a Choral Evensong on Sunday afternoon, Nov. 4. The parish’s music director, Zach Hemenway, conducted the combined adult and treble choirs plus organ scholar Caroline Robinson in a musical program that featured works by George Thalben-Ball, Healey Willan, Martin Neary, Charles Villiers Stanford, T. Tertius Noble, Edgar Bainton and G.S. Talbot.
Noble’s “Magnificat” and “Nunc Dimittis,” both taken from his “Evening Service in B minor,” were the afternoon’s principal scores. Both are English language settings from New Testament texts. The words of the “Nunc Dimittis” (Lord, now lettest thy servant depart in peace) were spoken by Simeon in that Gospel’s Second Chapter. Noble set both texts with music that was straightforward yet expressive. Harmonies were both evocative and propulsive. The presentation of the words was clear, and the contrapuntal textures were smoothly blended.
St. Paul’s combined choir of adults and children sang both works beautifully, filling the church’s dramatically arched neo-Gothic vaults with warm and expressive tones.
The 2012-13 season of “Concerts at the Cathedral Basilica” continued Friday, Nov. 9, with the London-based Tenebrae Choir singing a program of mostly Russian Orthodox sacred choral music in the Roman Catholic Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter & Paul on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in center city. The concert drew an audience of nearly 1,000 music lovers, probably twice the size of the crowd that heard Tenebrae last season.
Nigel Short conducted the 17-member choir in mostly unaccompanied music only rarely heard outside the confines of the great cathedrals of the Russian Orthodox Church. While most American classical music lovers think of the piano whenever they hear or read the name of Sergei Rachmaninoff, the Russian master actually considered his piano music lesser in import than his orchestral music and those works of lesser importance than his sacred choral music.
His “All-Night Vigil” and “Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom” are among the treasures of not just the sacred choral music of the Russian Orthodox Church, but of all sacred choral music composed for any and all liturgies. Nigel Short added variety to the roster of works by including music by the Estonian Arvo Part’s “The Beatitudes” and several exquisite scores by the contemporary Englishman, Paul Mealor.
The Tenebrae Choir sang every work in their daunting two-hour concert with technical mastery and interpretive conviction. All 17 voices blended immaculately, yet whenever an individual singer sang a solo, his or her voice blossomed with stentorian power.
I hasten to mention the important ingredient of the venue. Although the Cathedral Basilica is in desperate need of restoration, there’s nothing wrong with its acoustics for programs such as this. The tones emanated from the choir and then rolled outward and then back again to surround the audience with the roseate sound of heavenly singing.
When Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra celebrated this past June the centenary of Leopold Stokowski’s appointment as music director of the ensemble with a series of concerts in its historic home, the Academy of Music, the results were spectacular. Stoki’s young successor displayed an ear for sonorities that would have impressed the legendary maestro. Nezet-Seguin elicited sounds from the Philadelphians that old-timers like me — who actually heard Stokowski conduct and grew up during Eugene Ormandy’s 44-year tenure — feared were part of the past but not of the future.
So it was with an optimistic spirit that I attended Saturday night’s concert in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. Guest conductor Emmanuel Krivine had assembled a program Stokowski might have conducted: Franck’s “Symphony in D minor,” Poulenc’s “Concerto in D minor for Two Pianos & Orchestra” (with soloists Christina & Michelle Naughton) and Stokowski’s transcription for orchestra of Bach’s “Toccata & Fugue in D minor for solo organ.” It turned out to be one of the biggest disappointments in many a year.
Krivine displayed not one hint of Stokowski’s acclaimed sound. In place of shimmering clarity from top to bottom of the range, he offered muddy textures, sloppy rhythms, rushed tempi and unarticulated phrases in both the Franck and the Bach. Ensemble was dreadful in the former while the counterpoint was obliterated in the latter. If Stokowski wasn’t dead already, he certainly would have died Saturday night hearing what was being done to his “Fabulous Philadelphians.”