by Michael Caruso
Local classical music lovers who regularly attend concerts given by the Philadelphia Orchestra often have the pleasure of hearing the dulcet tones of an English horn in an extended, exposed solo in the middle of a large orchestral work. Those who recognize that poignant, plaintive sound do so as a result of the hands and the breath of a Chestnut Hill native.
Since 1995, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s English hornist has been Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia. She succeeded Louis Rosenblatt after his retirement. She had studied privately with Rosenblatt before attending the Curtis Institute of Music. Once there, Elizabeth studied with John de Lancie, former principal oboist with the Orchestra and also a former director of the Curtis Institute. Prior to attending Curtis, Elizabeth was involved at the Settlement Music School, where she worked with Shirley Curtiss in the school’s chamber music program. Both Settlement (in 1908) and Curtis (in 1924) were founded through the generosity of Mary Louise Curtis, heir to the Curtis Publishing Company fortune and a supporter of the arts in Philadelphia.
During a recent conversation backstage at the Kimmel Center, Elizabeth spoke of her feeling privileged to have grown up in Chestnut Hill with parents who are longtime Philadelphians. “Having my roots here in Philadelphia has been so helpful and important,” she said. “I grew up as a child and as a musician hearing the sound of this orchestra in my ear. It’s that special sound that makes this such a distinctive orchestra, along with the passion and technique, and that is appreciated all over the world. It’s an incredible luxury to be able to work as a musician with other musicians who all share a tremendous commitment to making beautiful music.”
The principal focus of Elizabeth’s excitement as a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra is the players’ experiencing their first full season with Yannick Nezet-Seguin as their music director.
“He has exceeded all of our expectations,” she said. “He brings a remarkable degree of awareness of the music to every rehearsal and performance, and that makes the whole experience a great deal of fun for us. And he has the same effect on the audiences, as well. He is a perfect combination of musical talent and people skills.”
A few weeks ago at Verizon Hall Nezet-Seguin and the Philadelphians had their first recording session in 15 years — as opposed to recordings of “live” concerts — for the classical music world’s premier record company, Deutsche Grammophon.
Although it’s not possible to determine who is the greatest of all classical composers, it’s probably safe to assert that Johann Sebastian Bach has the strongest claim to that title. While he may not be “the father of classical music,” as he was dubbed when I was a child — that title probably belongs to the compilers of Gregorian chant — Bach’s music towers over that of every other composer as a perfect blend of mind, heart, soul and spirit.
Of all Bach’s scores, the likeliest candidate for the title of “greatest” would be the “St. Matthew Passion,” which was written to be performed on Good Friday as part of the liturgical commemoration of Christ’s crucifixion at St. Thomas Lutheran Church in Leipzig, where Bach was music director.
Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra, five vocal soloists, the Westminster Symphonic Choir and the American Boychoir in a performance of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” Saturday, March 30, for an audience that initially packed the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. The 3-hour-20-minute concert was “semi-staged” and, therefore, leaned in the direction of being operatic in nature. The result was an interpretation that was strong dramatically but weak spiritually.
Nezet-Seguin held the attention of most if not all of his audience, but there was little inspiration for the soul from what may be the most heart-wrenching and soul-searching piece of music ever composed. The Philadelphians played exceedingly well, as they always do for their new music director, and both tenor Andrew Staples as the Evangelist and bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni as Christ sang sensitively and powerfully, but as an artistic whole, the performance was lacking in spiritual depth.