by Michael Caruso
Although icy road conditions and near-zero temperature threatened to cancel altogether its already-postponed Christmas Lessons & Carols, the Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Chestnut Hill, chose to tough it out and celebrate the traditional Anglican afternoon liturgy Jan. 5. It was a wise decision that drew a surprisingly large number of people. They heard one of the loveliest musical performances of the recently completed Christmas season, and, since it took place on the Sunday before Epiphany, the event was authentically appropriate. It rounded out the season for Chestnut Hillers, many of whom have come to depend on St. Martin’s and its fraternal Episcopal parish, St. Paul’s, to mark off the major solemnities of the year.
Parish music director Erik Meyer opened the service with a stylish rendition of Louis Claude Daquin’s “Noel II & X,” offering their tart, rustic charm in a fashion that evoked the timbres heard at a concert given by Piffaro, the Renaissance Wind Band. Considering the chilly weather outside and the countrified setting of St. Martin’s Church, the music and its performance both hit the mark.
A solo boy treble launched the choir’s contribution to the service with the singing of the first verse of the carol, “Once in royal David’s city.” The choir offered exemplary singing in Charles Wood’s arrangement of the French carol, “Ding dong!” Meyer chose a lively tempo, and the choristers maintained the choral writing’s long melodic lines with immaculate ensemble and blend.
The choir’s trebles sang the opening lines of Harold Darke’s “In the bleak midwinter,” offering tones of sweet, fragile beauty that recalled a simpler, less commercial celebration of Christmas. With Meyer at the pipe organ, the full chorus sang in finely shaped phrases. John Rutter’s arrangement of a “Cornish Carol” included a beautifully played flute obligato as well as a perfectly maintained balance between the delicate women’s tones and heartier men’s timbres.
Michael Praetorius’ “Emmanuel is born” (sung in the original Latin) received a rendition that caught its late medieval austerity with both authenticity and energy, while David Willcocks’ arrangement of the Polish carol “Infant holy, infant lowly” was sung more darkly. Meyer’s own arrangement of the spiritual “There’s a star in the east on Christmas morn” was lovingly sung.
Leo Nester’s festive “Alleluia” was the choir’s final – and stunning – contribution, with Meyer bringing the entire service to a spectacular finale with Messiaen’s “Dieu Parmi Nous” (God with us).
Although British-based conductor Robin Ticciati looks as though he’s barely old enough to have graduated from a music conservatory, he proved himself a convincing maestro Saturday evening in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. Making only his second appearance with the Philadelphia Orchestra, he opened the ensemble’s three-week celebration of the music of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky with a memorable set of performance of two scores by the Russian master and a third by a Russian compatriot, Anatoli Liadov.
The evening’s principal work was Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 4 in F minor.” The composer showed off his inspired gift for writing for the brass choir through scoring that gives brass players every bit as much to do compositionally as the usually more favored string section. In all four movements, but especially in the first and fourth, Tchaikovsky presents the main thematic components of the music in the brass choir and then surrounds and deepens them via the strings and enhances the development of those motifs through the woodwinds. The result is an orchestral texture that sounds like that of no other composer and that scintillates the ear and thrills the heart.
Ticciati elicited exemplary playing from the orchestra’s brass choir: French horns, trumpets, trombones and tuba. Tones were appropriately stentorian in the more martial passages yet suitably more mellow when the brass stepped back while the strings and/or the woodwinds came to the fore of the storytelling. Ensemble was excellent throughout, with the Philadelphians responding on a dime to the young conductor’s expressive use of rubato, speeding up here and slowing down there. The performance received a well-deserved standing ovation from Saturday night’s audience, which packed the hall.
Prior to intermission, Ticciati was joined by British pianist Stephen Hough for a splendid rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor.” Possessing an iron-clad (if not absolutely note-perfect) technique and offering a focused (if not particularly mellow) tone, Hough gave what can best be described as a thoughtful interpretation to what is often considered merely a dazzling showpiece. Certainly Hough’s playing was dazzling, but more important, he brought out both its intimate lyricism and structural concision. He rewarded his delighted audience with a beautifully played encore: Grieg’s “Nocturne” from the “Lyric Pieces.”