by Michael Caruso
Zach Hemenway, music director of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill, presented the annual Ann Stookey Memorial Organ Recital Sunday afternoon, January 26, on the church’s magnificent Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ. The performance focused a spotlight on the $250,000 matching grant Stookey’s family established shortly after her death in 2012, creating the Ann Stookey Fund for Music at St. Paul’s Church.
The fund’s purpose is to raise sufficient money to maintain the 110-rank instrument, whose replacement value is set at $3 million and whose tuning costs $1,100 three times a year. Stookey was a member of St. Paul’s Church and its choir, and she had a particular fondness for and appreciation of the church’s pipe organ.
The instrument has a compelling history. It was installed in 1956 in what was then a revolutionary style of organ building that provided the clear registrations needed to play both baroque/classical and contemporary organ music. It replaced the parish’s original pipe organ, which was typical of the romantic/symphonic style of building in the decades of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1989, Hemenway’s predecessor, Richard Alexander, was able to purchase for a mere $1 a pipe organ virtually identical with the instrument the current Aeolian-Skinner had replaced, thereby restoring to the church those romantic/symphonic registrations that had been lost. The final additional registrations were subsequently added to chambers in the ceiling above the console, producing an instrument of remarkable variety and seamless consistency.
Hemenway chose his program to showcase the instrument’s incredible range by assembling a roster of music dating back to the late 16th century and reaching up to contemporary times, and covering may different national styles of writing for the organ. He opened the program with Cesar Franck’s “Piece Heroique,” a darkly chromatic score that proffered the opportunity to show off the instrument’s symphonic potency as well as its chamber music intimacy.
Hemenway followed the Franck with three selections from the “Suzanne van Soldt Manuscript” of late 16th century Dutch keyboard music, using only the stops of the original 1956 organ, flawlessly calibrated for the music’s gentle counterpoint. Still relying on only the 1956 stops, Hemenway then played Jean Alain’s Variations on a Theme by Clement Janequin, adding on more and more tart registrations.
Moving into the 1989 additions, Hemenway then played the Praeludium in E minor of Nicolaus Bruhns, a northern German baroque composer and predecessor of Johann Sebastian Bach. Then, jumping the centuries, he performed the haunting Lullaby of Calvin Hampton, an American who lived from 1938-1984. Here Hemenway chose lush registrations that caressed the ear.
The Sonata IV by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy displayed the instrument’s power and delicacy, offering tones that were both warm and clear, forcefully projected and delicately insinuated. Two stunning pieces by Marcel Dupre brought the recital to a scintillating close, reminding the large and enthusiastic audience of the superb qualities of St. Paul’s organ and establishing Zach Hemenway as very possibly Greater Philadelphia’s premier church organist.
Earlier in the afternoon I heard Tempesta di Mare’s concert “A Secret Flame” in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. Subtitled “Song for Versailles,” the program featured French baroque music, an often-overlooked segment of the repertoire of the 17th & 18th centuries.
For even the most broad-based audiences of early music concerts, it’s usually Italian and German baroque scores that are heard. Because both Italy and Germany didn’t come into existence as nation-states until 1870, their respective histories during the baroque and classical musical epochs are characterized by a plethora of styles and fashions. Both Italy and German were comprised of a myriad of city-states, independent duchies and principalities, republics such as Venice, the Papal States, and the Holy Roman Empire – which wasn’t holy, Roman or an empire. Not surprisingly, each political entity sought to outdo the others in all aspects of culture.
France, on the other hand, was a centrally structured kingdom from the time of Louis XIII early in the 17th century. By the time of his successor, the “Sun King” Louis XIV, everything that took place in France occurred at the command of the monarch in residence in Versailles, the site of one of the grandest palaces ever built in Europe. The king dominated everything that happened at Versailles, including all the music composed either there or for there. Needless to say, such a smothering approach eliminated even the possibility of much variety.
The situation did, however, produce a style of music that was consistent in the importance placed on sound. French baroque music – in fact, French music throughout the subsequent centuries all the way into the 21st – offers a distinctive tonal personality that is characterized by shimmering clarity and elegant turns of phrases.
Sunday afternoon’s concert was graced by the presence of guest tenor Aaron Sheehan, who sang music by Jean-Baptiste Lully, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Michel Lambert and Etienne Moulinie in a voice of surpassing clarity, effortless projection and immaculate diction. He phrased with lyrical precision and invested his singing with intensity and intimacy. The instrumental members of Tempesta supported him beautifully.