by Michael Caruso
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, brought the Advent season to a spectacular finale Sunday afternoon, Dec. 21, with a Festival of Lessons & Carols that surpassed any performance of this service I’ve ever experienced. Heard by a congregation that literally packed the church – which means about 550 people – the musical offerings programmed by parish music director Zachary Hemenway were performed at a level that would have made even the great Anglican cathedrals and college chapels of England green with envy.
Following a series of organ preludes by Ireland, Liszt, Oxley, Sumsion and Daquin played by organ scholar Joseph Russell, Hemenway honored the tradition of the Choir of Kings College Chapel, Cambridge University, by opening the service proper with a solo treble perched in the loft to sing the first verse of the carol, “Once in Royal David’s City.” The combined choirs of St. Paul’s Church, more than 80 singers, then sang the second verse as they started the procession from the back of the church to the sanctuary, finally joined by the congregation for the third through sixth verses.
David Willcocks’ elegant arrangement of the carol “Good King Wenceslas” followed in a rendition that equaled the score for eloquence, as did the singing of Herbert Howells’ lovely arrangement of “A Spotless Rose.” Blend between the individual voices and balance between the sections never strayed from the flawless, and dynamics were broadly varied and securely sustained.
The choir returned to the back of the church for Ola Gjeilo’s “Second Eve,” sung in Latin in a linguistic reminder of the ancient Roman foundations of the Church of England, whose Cathedral of Truro was the site of the first Advent Lessons and Carols in 1880. Here the most impressive aspect of the performance was the seamless legato of all the linear textures of the score.
The choir embellished the congregation’s singing of the carol “The First Noel” with stunning descants and then sang William Mathias’ daunting “A Babe Is Born” as though it were as easy as a child’s song. Hemenway returned to the organ console for the final two carols of the service. In both “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” the choir’s descants and Hemenway’s registrations of the church’s 114-rank Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ were simply stunning.
St. Paul’s Church will present two Choral Evensongs preceded by organ recitals on the Sunday afternoons of Jan. 18 and 25. For the first, Hemenway will play at 4:30 p.m. and then at 5 p.m. conduct the combined choirs of Holy Spirit Episcopal Church, Harleysville, and St. Stephen’s Pro-Cathedral & Immanuel Church, New Castle, Del. For the second, James Roman will perform a solo organ recital at 4:30 p.m., and Hemenway will lead St. Paul’s own choir at 5 p.m. For those of you who can’t wait until mid-January, the Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Chestnut Hill, will celebrate Choral Evensong Sunday, Jan. 4, at 5 p.m.
Chestnut Hill’s Cristian Macelaru, the conductor-in-residence of the Philadelphia Orchestra, will lead the ensemble in “Cirque de la Symphonie” Saturday, Jan. 3, 8 p.m., and Sunday, Jan. 4, 2 p.m., in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. The program will feature the acrobats, aerialists and jugglers of Cirque de la Symphonie. Also, Macelaru will step in to replace the late Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos for concerts with the Philadelphia Orchestra March 12, 13 and 14 in Verizon Hall. His program includes Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony No. 6, Manuel de Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain” with Jorge Federico Osorio in his orchestra debut and the Suite No. 2 from Falla’s “The Three-Cornered Hat.”
Donald Nally and his professional chamber choir, The Crossing, helped ring out the old year with “The Crossing @ Christmas” Dec. 19 in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. Together they will help ring in the new year Saturday, Jan. 3, 8 p.m., in Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church with David Lang’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Little Match Girl Passion” and its companion piece, “The Consolation of Apollo” by local composer Kile Smith. “Consolation” was commissioned for The Crossing by bass Eric Owens, a West Mt. Airy native who attended both Settlement Music School and the Curtis Institute of Music and who now regularly sings in the world’s leading opera houses.
For ticket information visit www.crossingchoir.com.