by Michael Caruso
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, was the site of two very different musical events over the final weekend before Christmas. On Friday evening, Dec. 20, Donald Nally and The Crossing presented “The Crossing @ Christmas.” Then, on Sunday afternoon, Dec. 22, the parish itself celebrated the Festival of Lessons and Carols for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, under the musical direction of organist & choirmaster Zachary Hemenway. Both events drew an audience that truly packed the house.
LESSONS & CAROLS
As it has for many years with all the various seasonal incarnations of Choral Evensong, St. Paul’s Church flawlessly followed the traditional Anglican service of Lessons and Carols. After a 20-minute organ prelude of music by Ireland, Liszt, Oxley, Sumsion and Daquin played by organ scholar Joseph Russell, a solo treble placed up in the loft intoned the first verse of “Once in Royal David’s City” just as though you were sitting in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge University. Then the 60-member adult choir and the 20-member children’s choir joined in, singing the carol’s second and subsequent verses as all the choristers processed down the aisle from the back up to the chancel, where extra chairs had to be placed to accommodate the full ensemble.
Unaccompanied by the church’s mighty Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ, Hemenway led the choir in Boris Ord’s setting of the anonymous 15th century text, “Adam Lay Ybounden.” Employing a quick tempo that flowed across the lines of the poetry, Hemenway elicited singing that was warm in tone yet clear in texture. Russell returned to accompany Martin Peerson’s “Blow out the trumpet.” Here, Hemenway’s deft hand at blending the three kinds of soprano voices in his choir (boy trebles, young girls and adult women) into an immaculately colored timbre was impressively on display.
In a gesture that recalled the historic ties between the Church of England and the Russian Orthodox Church, Hemenway led a gorgeous unaccompanied rendition of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Rejoice, O Virgin Theotokos (God-bearer),” sung in Russian with a sense of reverence that would have impressed the Patriarch of Moscow enthroned in Christ the King Cathedral. No less impressive was the performance given “God is with us,” composed by the English-born but Russian Orthodox convert John Tavener.
As the service came to its conclusion, Hemenway took to the organ console to accompany the choir of 80 and the congregation of about 550 in “O Come, all ye faithful” and “Hark! The herald angels sing,” the traditional final pair of carols of Anglican Lessons and Carols – a tradition both honored and enlivened.
I found “The Crossing @ Christmas,” however, inconsistent and ultimately unsatisfying. The problem wasn’t the singing of the choir or founder/director Donald Nally’s conducting. Rather, the culprits were two unappealing pieces of music that dominated the concert.
I found Wolfgang Rihm’s “Astralis” to combine the two worst possible aspects any score can boast. Lasting a tedious 20 minutes, it is the most boring piece of choral music I have ever heard. Problem number two is its lack of meaning. Set to a text that defines gibberish, it proceeds to offer a seemingly unending line of shapeless harmonies. They’d put you to sleep if only you were lucky enough not to be hoping for something better, as I was throughout its length, due to Nally’s exemplary record of presenting excellent contemporary choral music.
As though rising to the challenge on the negative side, Gabriel Jackson’s “Ave, regina caelorum” came in a close second for the title of most off-putting music of the evening. Whatever possessed the composer to accompany a choral setting of a traditional sacred Latin text lauding the “Queen of Heaven” with a booming electric guitar? And what was Nally thinking when he programmed and performed the resultant cacophony? I’ll never know, but both their decisions were regrettable.
Perhaps the most distressing point of it all was that there were some lovely works on the program, most notably Will Todd’s “My Lord has come,” composed in 2011 and sung from the back of the church at both the start and conclusion of the concert. It was sung with all the technical perfection and expressive intensity with which devotees of Nally and The Crossing such as myself have come to expect from them. Eriks Esenvalds’ “O Emmanuel” and “O salutaris hostia” were also noteworthy for their beauty and the beauty with which they were sung. If only they hadn’t been overwhelmed by two scores not worthy of their places on the program.