by Michael Caruso
Piffaro, the Renaissance Band, brought its 2013-14 season of concerts in Chestnut Hill to a close Saturday, May 17, with a program entitled “Prisoners & Penitents.” Performed in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, the oddly named selection of scores drawn from the late Renaissance and early Baroque repertoires was one of the most successful presentations I’ve heard from any local ensemble in many seasons.
The concept behind the roster of pieces chosen by co-directors Joan Kimball and Robert Wiemken was the frequency with which ordinary and extraordinary people found themselves in prison during the 16th and 17th centuries throughout Europe but mostly (in this case) in England. Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII’s second wife and the first he sent to the executioner’s block, was apparently a favorite choice as a subject for late Renaissance and early Baroque composers. Even those who didn’t much like her, to say nothing of those who wished for the patronage of her daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, set her supposed laments to music.
Mezzo-soprano Maren Montalbano was the guest artist for the concert. Her voice is full-bodied, and she employed vibrato sparingly so as to blend with the period instruments and project the texts clearly. She captured that sense of spiritual resignation that characterized some of the lyrics as well as the contrasting wellspring of anger that coursed through others.
Of the various instrumental groupings drawn from the entire ensemble, it was the recorder consort that sounded particularly beautiful Saturday evening with individual voices coming together in immaculately tuned counterpoint. Christina Patton’s harp playing was especially worthy of admiration.
The Philadelphia Singers and the Camden-based Symphony in C helped bring the 2013-14 series of Concerts at the Cathedral to a close Sunday, May 14, with performances of Mozart’s “Solemn Vespers of the Confessor, K.” and Schubert’s “Mass in A-flat.” The concert drew a crowd of nearly 800 to hear excellent singing and playing initially undermined but subsequently enhanced by the abundantly reverberant acoustics of the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Several singers familiar to Chestnut Hillers took prominent solo parts. Mezzo-soprano Alyson Harvey, heard in the Schubert, lives in West Mt. Airy and is the mezzo soloist at the Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Tenor William Lim lives in Chestnut Hill and is a soloist in the choir of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. He, too, was a soloist in the Schubert. Tenor Kenneth Garner, a soloist in the Mozart, was the tenor soloist at St. Paul’s Church. Soprano Leslie Johnson, a soloist in the Mozart, performed as a member of the Laughing Bird Vocal Quartet during this past season’s “Five Fridays: Concerts for the Community” at St. Paul’s Church.
Perhaps more than for any other kind of classical music ensemble, choirs are almost completely dependent for the sound they project on the space in which they are singing. Most concert halls prove themselves totally inappropriate for the sacred choral repertoire because they offer fairly short reverberation times in comparison to those of the cathedrals for which most musical settings of traditional Latin texts of the Roman Catholic Church were composed. Although cathedrals do, indeed, have the claim of “authenticity” on their side, venues such as the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul offer far more reverberation than is suitable for works other than those specifically intended for long-sounding echoes.
Sunday afternoon’s concert provided proof-positive of this situation. Mozart’s “Solemn Vespers of the Confessor” was very nearly undone by so much reverberation that its contrapuntal inner lines were obliterated despite a valiant effort by conductor David Hayes, exemplary singing by the Philadelphia Singers and excellent playing by the Symphony in C.
Schubert’s often and unfairly overlooked “Mass in A-flat,” on the other hand, received a superb reading. Whereas the Cathedral Basilica’s sumptuous acoustics muddied Mozart’s writing, they enhanced Schubert’s score with a sonic bloom that revealed it to be a hidden masterpiece.