by Michael Caruso
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, played host to its third annual Festival of Three Choirs the first weekend of May. Joining the parish’s substantial choral establishment — an adult choir numbering nearly 60 and a children’s choir of almost 20 — were the choirs of Christ Episcopal Church, Alexandria, Virginia, and the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, Bethesda, Maryland. The choirs sang at the principal Sunday morning service and then again at Choral Evensong in the afternoon.
The service got underway with a superb rendition by music director Zach Hemenway of Herbert Howell’s “Master Tallis’ Testament” at St. Paul’s Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ. The work’s title refers to Thomas Tallis, the greatest of the English composers of sacred choral music during the 16th century.
Both the “Magnificat” and the “Nunc Dimittis” were taken from Howells’ Evening Service for St. Paul’s Cathedral. The performance of the former was highlighted by exquisite singing from the tenor section of the combined choir, clearly projected and securely placed, while the latter’s rendition was characterized by a solemnity that spoke of an acceptance of a promised peaceful departure from this world. Both musical settings were powerfully cast by Howells and mightily sung by the choir.
Henry Balfour Gardiner’s “Evening Hymn” was the service’s offertory anthem. Sung in English rather than Latin, its performance was the one disappointment of the afternoon. Diction was muddy; it was difficult following the text, even while reading it. Ensemble was no better; entrances and cutoffs were out of sync while balance and blend came and went.
The previous weekend heard the final installment of St. Paul’s “Five Fridays: Concerts to Community.” Offered in collaboration with Astral Artists, the series raises money for Face to Face Germantown and the Northwest Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network, two local charities that help transition local residents from group homes to independent living.
The evening’s performers were the Jasper String Quartet and clarinetist Benito Meza. The Quartet played Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1946 “String Quartet No. 1 in F” major prior to intermission; it was then joined by Meza for Brahms’ 1891 “Clarinet Quintet” after the interval.
The members of the Jasper Quartet projected both Shostakovich’s incredible imagination for thematic and harmonic manipulation and the searing emotional content that lies behind it. Individual lines came to the fore and then receded, as though the tortured souls of the century’s unequaled violence were telling their stories to each other.
Brahms had mostly retired from composing when, like all creative geniuses, his muse was challenged — by the sonic potential of the clarinet. His “Quintet in B minor for Clarinet and Strings” inspired him to produce a score of boundless invention. The Jasper players and Meza captured both its compelling construction and touching nostalgia.
Music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin returned to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra in the final two sets of programs in its 2013-14 season of concerts at the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. The first pair, played May 1 and 3, opened with the “Adagio for Strings” by West Chester native Samuel Barber, continued with Bela Bartok’s “Violin Concerto No. 1” and concluded with Anton Bruckner’s “Symphony No. 9 in D minor.” Amazingly, the not-yet-39-year-old Nezet-Seguin conducted both the Barber and the Bruckner by memory. Saturday night’s performance was superb for its beauty and power.