by Michael Caruso
The final two weekends before Christmas provided local music lovers with the gift of many holiday concerts. Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 12-14, gave me the chance to hear both the Vox Renaissance Consort and the Mendelssohn Club at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, as well as the Advent Cantatas and Chamber Music concert at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. Each in its own particular way was a distinctive addition to Philadelphia’s musical life taking place right here in Chestnut Hill.
The emotional highpoint of the weekend of concerts was “A Feast of Carols,” performed before an audience that packed every square foot of St. Paul’s Church late Saturday afternoon. This annual concert, started back in 1988, is always among the most popular Christmas concerts throughout the region. This time, however, there was an additional reason for the crowd to be as large and enthusiastic as it was. Alan Harler is stepping down as the Mendelssohn Club’s artistic director at the end of this season after heading the 130-member chorus for 27 years. Undoubtedly local choral music lovers simply wanted to combine hearing a fabulous program with offering a hearty “thank you” to Harler.
This year’s installment stood as a sonic testament to why Harler has been so successful. The program was flawlessly constructed and performed with a superb pairing of tonal splendor and impassioned musicality. Harler balanced the new with the old, interspersed carols to be sung by the audience with the choir between anthems drawn from the broad repertoire of Christmas masterpieces. His talents will be sorely missed.
BACH AND HANDEL
Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel make an odd couple as the two titans of the Baroque era, approximately 1600 to 1750. Both were born in 1685 in a Germany that was still comprised of a host of independent kingdoms, principalities and duchies. Most were Protestant (principally Lutheran but also Calvinist, as in Prussia) while others, notably Bavaria, were Catholic. Both Bach and Handel were born in Protestant states, but while Bach remained a Lutheran throughout his life, Handel became a member of the Church of England. Both composed a substantial amount of sacred choral music, Bach in his cantatas for St. Thomas Church in Leipzig and Handel with English-language oratorios once Italian opera was no longer popular in London. Whereas Bach was not all that well known outside his immediate circle – and several of his sons were far more famous than he – Handel was an international superstar for those operas and oratorios.
The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill presented an Advent Cantata and Chamber Music concert Sunday, Dec. 14, in its newly renovated chapel. Conducted by Daniel Spratlan, the congregation’s music director, the program featured Bach’s Cantata No. 61: “Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland” (Now comes the savior of the Gentiles) and substantial selections from the Christmas portion of Handel’s “Messiah.”
Although Bach’s “Mass in B minor” and “St. Matthew Passion” are arguably the towering achievements of all of classical music, his Cantatas were composed weekly for Lutheran Church services. “Messiah,” on the other hand, was a do-or-die score for Handel. Italian operas were no longer the fashion in London theaters. Handel needed a popular success, so he leaped at the chance to compose an English oratorio based on Old Testament prophecies and New Testament fulfillments of the Messiah.
Spratlan presided over the smallest ensemble I’ve ever heard perform “Messiah.” There were nine singers and seven instrumentalists. But in the intimate and resonant setting of the church’s chapel, the singing and playing were both delicate and powerful.
Tenor Kevin Radtke displayed amazing breath control in “Comfort ye my people” and “Every valley shall be exalted,” and he sang with effortless lyricism. Bass Brandon Gaines sounded appropriately somber in “The people that walked in darkness.” And the ensemble as a whole sang three of the choruses with emotional intensity. In the Bach, Radtke again triumphed in “Komm, Jesus, komm,” and bass Steven Gearhart sang beautifully in “Siehe, siehe!”
By its very nature, Vox Renaissance Consort’s “Renaissance Noel” concert of Friday, Dec. 12, was a mixed bag. So many diverse parts go into the mix of the program — visual as well as musical, vocal as well as instrumental — that a perfectly consistent level of performance is almost impossible to imagine let alone maintain.
All the same, Romanian-born Valentin Radu presided over a wonderfully enjoyable event. Although virtually all the repertoire was drawn from literally centuries ago, both the choir and the orchestra performed the music as though every score was fresh off the printing press. Textures were bright, rhythms were energetic, and there was an engaging sense of discovery to every interpretation.