by Michael Caruso
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, welcomed Christopher Jennings to perform a solo recital on its 114-rank Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ Friday evening, Oct. 18. The event was a fundraiser for the Ann Stookey Memorial Fund for Music. Stookey, a longtime Chestnut Hiller and church member, recently passed away. Her family has given the church a matching bequest for the maintenance of the organ and the sustenance of the parish’s music program.
Jennings, who is currently associate organist/choirmaster at St. James’ Church in New York City, chose a program that highlighted the color capabilities of the church’s pipe organ. The entire first half of the recital was taken up by Clarence Dickinson’s “Storm King” Symphony. After intermission, Jennings played Alec Wyton’s “Fanfare,” Calvin Hampton’s “Five Dances” and Gerre Hancock’s “Toccata.” In all four scores, Jennings displayed a rock-solid technique, interpretive flair and a gift for registering the instrument for maximum tonal effect.
Composed in 1920, Dickinson’s “Storm King” Symphony paints five aural pictures of the “Storm King” mountain overlooking the Hudson River in New York State. Originally scored for organ and orchestra, Dickinson later transcribed it for solo organ, the version that was used by Jennings Friday night.
Wyton’s “Fanfare” voices an inner melody within broad, staccato chords and an admirable sense of dramatic development. Hampton’s “Five Dances” are full of syncopated rhythms, jazzy harmonies, a surprisingly full palette of counterpoint and welcome moments of eloquent lyricism. Hancock’s “Toccata” brought the recital to a flashy finale. From start to finish, the music and the playing it received showcased what is undoubtedly one of the finest pipe organs in the world.
Piffaro, the Renaissance Band, opened its 28th season of concerts in Philadelphia Saturday night, Oct. 19, in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. Although the program, “The Return of the Pipers,” looked splendid on paper, there were technical glitches in performance that troubled the discerning ear.
The concert was set out as a “competition” between Flemish, English and French music of the 15th and 16th centuries, pitting against each other the musical establishments of Europe’s most powerful monarchs: Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, England’s King Henry VIII and France’s King Francois I.
There were sections entitled “A Suite of Flemish Tunes,” “An English Sampler,” “Three Sacred Offerings,” “More English, with a French Twist” and “French & Flemish Dances.” Although a certain degree of sameness did creep into the music making — each group invariably seemed to end with additional percussion — Piffaro’s characteristic vitality almost always captivated and delighted.
On several occasions, however, individual numbers started off precariously and eventually ground to a halt due to ensemble insecurities, forcing the musicians to restart the proceedings. While these difficulties did not surface during pieces performed by the full consort of recorders, they did occur when the complement either featured or included only the double reed instruments.
One positive highlight of the concert, however, was the playing of Martin Bernstein, the winner of Piffaro’s 2013 National Recorder Competition. He played with the technical fluency and interpretive sophistication of a seasoned, veteran musician.
Semyon Bychkov guest-conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra October 10, 11 and 12 in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. Although pianist Yefim Bronfman lent an air of glamour to the evening’s music making by joining Bychkov in Beethoven’s “Fourth Piano Concerto” to open the concert, it was Bychkov’s reading of Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 11 in G minor” (“The Year 1905”) that made the strongest impression.
Shostakovich composed his eleventh symphony in 1957. Only the year before, Russian tanks had rolled into Budapest to violently suppress the peaceful protests of the Hungarian people against the communist oppression imposed upon them after the end of World War II. And so, Shostakovich, probably at great personal risk, offered an implicit cry against such tyranny while explicitly commemorating the 1905 massacre of peaceful protesters by Czarist troops in St. Petersburg. It’s a score that not only doesn’t request beautiful sounds from the players but that almost forbids them, with the exception of those telling moments when ethereal beauty is contrasted against hideous cruelty.
The loveliest of those fleeting gestures of beauty was that provided by former Chestnut Hiller Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia, the orchestra’s English horn player, near the end of the symphony’s final movement.