by Michael Caruso
Sunday, February 3, was a double delight. I had the chance to hear two musical events, both of which took place in Chestnut Hill. Woodmere Art Museum presented Astral Artists’ pianist Michael Mizrahi in a program that paired traditional parts of the repertoire – Beethoven and Chopin – with music newly composed for the pianist. Just up the Avenue, the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill hosted Tempesta di Mare Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra in a program devoted to the group’s own orchestrations of the six Organ Trio Sonatas by J.S. Bach.
Tempesta’s program was a delight. Who would have ever thought that orchestrating six works by Bach intended for solo organ would be anything other than a dry, academic exercise meant for either a music history or orchestration class? Not anyone who knows the music of Bach, of course; not anyone who recognizes Bach as the greatest of all classical composers. For me, it came as no surprise at all.
What was most impressive here was the breadth and depth of timbral and textural imagination shown by the Tempesta musicians in producing a series of scores of such variety. While several sounded exactly like Bach’s own originally intended chamber music, Sonatas Nos. 1 and 6 sounded as though they were the 7th and 8th “Brandenburg” Concerti. What was consistent was the master’s ingenuity of thematic development and flexibility of contrapuntal writing.
Tempesta’s musicians played all six sonatas with technical command and interpretive depth. Gwyn Roberts was exceptionally expressive on two different recorders and one wooden transverse flute, while harpsichordist Adam Pearl played a 1980 William Dowd instrument with flawless phrasing.
In order to hear Tempesta’s concert at Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church, I had to leave Mizrahi’s recital at Woodmere at the intermission, catching only the first half. I was particularly impressed by his rendition of the first movement of Mark Danciger’s “The Bright Motion.” The score employs the full range of pianistic effects, making me look forward to someday hearing the entire work.
For those Chestnut Hillers who have been thrilled by the organ playing of Zach Hemenway during either Sunday morning services or at Choral Evensong in the afternoon at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, where he is music director, here’s an opportunity to hear him in a different setting. Hemenway will be the organist at 4 p.m. Sunday, February 17, Lenten Choral Vespers at Old St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, 4th and Walnut streets, Society Hill. The church was founded in 1733 by Jesuit Fathers and is the oldest Catholic parish in Philadelphia.
Hemenway will perform J.S. Bach’s “Erbarm dich mein O Herr Gott” for the organ prelude and then accompany Old St. Joseph’s Schola Cantorum in music by Byrd, Farrant/Hilton, French, Nestor, and Normand Gouin, Old St. Joseph’s music director, who will conduct the service. Roman Vespers is the original Latin liturgy for the afternoon upon which Anglican Choral Evensong was based after the 16th century Reformation in England under Queen Elizabeth I.
For more information, call 215-923-1733.
Opera Philadelphia presented the East Coast premiere of Kevin Puts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “Silent Night” Friday, February 8, in the Academy of Music before an audience that packed the historic house. The Peabody Conservatory of Music faculty member’s first opera, “Silent Night” continues February 13, 15 and 17 – and shouldn’t be missed by anyone sincerely interested in and in love with opera.
“Silent Night” is based on the true story of the fraternization between Scottish, French and German soldiers during World War I on Christmas Eve and Day. Early on in the war that profoundly destroyed Western civilization’s previously unbroken arch of progress, three sets of soldiers came to recognize their shared humanity, if only for a brief span of 24 or so hours. And, in a gesture that symbolized the stupidity that had started the “War to End All Wars” in the first place, the three officers in charge of these men were severely reprimanded rather than held up as prophets on how to end the carnage that left all of Europe depleted to this very day, nearly a century after the war began.
The triumph of “Silent Night” lies in Puts’ collaboration with librettist Mark Campbell, who based his work on Christian Carion’s screenplay for the film “Joyeux Noel,” which told the story in the first place. Together Puts and Campbell delineated the heart and soul of the tale through choice dialogue superbly set to beautifully dramatic music.
Opera Philadelphia’s production, conducted by Michael Christie and directed by Eric Simonson, is a miracle of evocative spectacle and personal revelation.
For more information, visit www.operaphila.org.