by Michael Caruso
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, hosted a solo organ recital followed by Choral Evensong Sunday, Jan. 18. Despite dangerous weather conditions earlier in the day, the double musical event drew an impressively large and demonstratively supportive crowd that heard the parish’s music director perform on the church’s Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ as well as a challenging choral program sung by three visiting choirs.
Parish music director Zach Hemenway opened his solo organ recital with Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Fantasy & Fugue in G minor.” His performance was a display of just how remarkably broad a spectrum of registrations the church’s organ contains within its 114 ranks. Acclaimed as a sonic paradigm of the classic American symphonic/romantic pipe organ, the instrument at St. Paul’s Church nonetheless is more than capable of offering registrations perfectly appropriate for music of German Baroque, roughly 1600-1750.
Bach’s organ music is the zenith of this style for the instrument, and his “Fantasy & Fugue in G minor” is one of his most dazzling creations. Hemenway chose stop settings that offered both the timbral clarity so necessary to project Bach’s dizzying counterpoint as well as the aggregate force of a full period instruments orchestra to make the aural impression the composer intended.
The recital was part of the parish’s ongoing fundraising for the Ann Stookey Fund for Music at St. Paul’s Church, which helps maintain what is arguably one of the finest church pipe organs on the East Coast. Functioning as a welcoming venue for choirs from throughout its region – the way cathedrals have traditionally done all across the U.S., the United Kingdom and Europe if not necessarily here in Philadelphia – St. Paul’s Episcopal Church welcomed the choirs of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit, Harleysville, Immanuel Episcopal Church-in-the-Green, New Castle, and St. Stephen’s Pro-Cathedral, Wilkes-Barre, to sing the historic Anglican liturgy of Choral Evensong in its traditional setting.
The next Choral Evensong at St. Paul’s Church is scheduled for Sunday, Jan. 25, 5 p.m. and will feature the parish’s Trebles and Adult Schola. James Roman will preface the service with a solo organ recital at 4:30 p.m.
Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra opened their three-week celebration of the music of St. Petersburg (for a while called Leningrad but now back to its original Czarist name) in Russia with a set of three concerts performed in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. I caught the Saturday evening, Jan. 17, performance and came away with more than a few misgivings and reservations about the concert.
After opening with a nicely interpreted and played “Winter” from Glazunov’s “The Seasons,” Nezet-Seguin offered five excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s magnificent ballet score, “The Nutcracker.” Perhaps because most of us rarely hear this glorious music on its own rather than as a background for a ballet performance, it’s often forgotten just how difficult it is to play.
I was forcibly reminded of that aspect of the music as a result of many passages of frayed ensemble and uneven balances throughout all five movements, all the more so after listening to my old Columbia Masterworks recording of Eugene Ormandy leading the Philadelphians in the score the following afternoon.
After intermission, Nezet-Seguin brought a visceral level of energy as well as incredible audience response to Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, but here again, there were troubling aspects to the rendition. The Orchestra’s young maestro tended to shape phrases only through changes of tempo rather than through changes loud and soft of dynamics. He also failed to layer the different textures of the score so as to highlight a particular line in the music over and above other lines that merely accompany the principal theme.
This was most apparent and distressing at the very opening of the first movement, when the strings nearly obliterated the dark, brooding motif of the bass clarinet that truly sets the tone of the symphony’s entire structure, a remarkable example of the composer’s complete mastery of classical symphonic form. There was much to admire in Nezet-Seguin’s reading of score, especially the closing allegro vivace, but such a masterpiece deserves more sonic subtlety.
FUTURE CONCERTS: Yannick Nezet-Seguin will lead the Philadelphia Orchestra in the North American premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Piano Concerto with Temple University alumnus Marc-Andre Hamelin as soloist, plus Stokowski’s arrangement of Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Prelude in C-sharp minor” and Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony Jan. 22 and 23, 8 p.m., in Verizon Hall.