by Michael Caruso
Chestnut Hill’s Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields celebrated the 125th anniversary of its founding with a trip by its choir to England. Led by parish music director Erik Meyer, the choir sang at Exeter Cathedral and its namesake parish, St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London.
Back home from the adventure, Meyer first put the trip in context. “English-speaking churches, especially the Episcopal Church, have looked to England as the foundation of their musical tradition,” he said. “Even denominations that originated in other countries, such as the Lutherans (from Germany and Scandinavia), probably sing more English music than any other national music. I love the English tradition, but I wasn’t interested in going to England to sing English music. So we almost exclusively sang American music. A setting of the (traditional Latin) Mass by Hans Leo Hassler was the only European piece.
“We brought Choral Evensong music by Hogan, Lehman, Ossenwaarde and a service of Canticles & Responses I composed for our 125th anniversary. Our anthems were also by Americans: Biery, Lauridsen, Paulus and White. A number of people told us that they hadn’t heard these pieces before and asked for copies to bring back to their own churches and choirs.”
Despite the members of the choir taking different flights, Meyer reported that everyone arrived on time, and only one person’s luggage was lost. They began with a weeklong residency at Exeter Cathedral. It’s located in the southwest of England midway between London and the far tip of Cornwall, a legendary duchy that is the principal English patrimony of Charles, Prince of Wales, who is also Duke of Cornwall.
“Exeter is a lovely university-town of about 100,000,” Meyer explained. “The cathedral was founded in 1050, 16 years before the Norman invasion of William the Conqueror, when it was deemed outdated, and a new one was built. The cathedral features two massive Norman towers, which house the second heaviest ringing bells in England. In the middle of the 14th century, the cathedral was rebuilt again, but the towers were kept, and a massive nave was built in between.”
Meyer described the cathedral’s interior as stunning, mostly due to the length of the nave. The cathedral’s ceiling is justly celebrated for its beauty, and its windows, though stained glass, allow much light to enter.
Singing, however, proved a tad difficult. “A large, unbroken nave meant less walls for the choir’s sound to bounce off of,” Meyer admitted, “so hearing was a problem. Probably the most difficult part was that the pipe organ was in the shop for repairs, and the electronic substitute fell far short, and our organist, Parker Kitterman of Christ Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, couldn’t hear the choir, at all.
“Our pilgrimage ended at our namesake, St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London. It’s an 18th century building, very similar to our own Christ Church, in fact. The building was less ornate compared to the cathedral — much more intimate — and equally beautiful. And it was very easy to sing there because the singers were closer to each other, the walls weren’t so far away, and the organ was clear and present. We sang our very best there. The morning service was fairly packed.
“It was exhausting singing every day, but I think we were all having such a good time that we were able to feed off each other’s energy. I feel that we ended the tour on cloud nine; many months of planning and rehearsing had finally paid off for a trip I know we’ll remember fondly for the rest of our lives.”
Josh Groban and the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia will perform in concert Wednesday, Aug. 27, 8 p.m. at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts in Fairmount Park. In the tradition of Andrea Bocelli and South Philadelphia’s own Mario Lanza before him, Groban has successfully brought an operatic tenor voice to popular music. His four albums have gone multi-platinum, and he is among the most popular singers in the world today. For ticket information, visit www.manncenter.org.