by Michael Caruso
As he prepares to bring his 27-year tenure as artistic director of the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia to a conclusion, Alan Harler will conduct Felix Mendelssohn’s version of J.S. Bach’s monumental “St. Matthew Passion” Sunday, Feb. 8, 4 p.m., in the Girard College Chapel. Joining the 130-member chorus will be local favorites mezzo Marietta Simpson and bass Eric Owens, both of West Mt. Airy, soprano Susanna Phillips and tenor Yusuke Jujii, organist Michael Stairs and the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia.
The performance will be the North American premiere of the edition the 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn constructed in 1829 following his appointment as music director of the German city of Leipzig, the very city where Bach worked for three decades and composed not only the “St. Matthew Passion” but also the “St. John Passion,” the “Mass in B minor” and the vast majority of the cantatas he wrote for the Lutheran services of St. Thomas Church.
Mendelssohn’s edition and performance inspired the first great “Bach revival” which, in turn, encouraged the development of amateur choral societies throughout Europe but especially in Great Britain and subsequently in the U.S., including the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia in 1874.
Just prior to the start of a recent rehearsal of the chorus at the Settlement Music School in the Queen Village section of Philadelphia, I asked Harler what were his principal goals 27 years ago when he took over the reins of the struggling Mendelssohn Club. “To establish a viable chorus, a sustainable budget for a full season of concerts. I hoped to do that by finding our niche in the local classical music community where there were many other choruses. Within a very short period of time, I hit upon the balance between performing the great masterpieces of the choral repertoire on one hand and commissioning and premiering new works on the other.
“I’ve always believed in the responsibility of music directors to do new American works and to support young American composers. Of course, it was a risk but one worth taking. And within a few years, I think I was able to convince the singers to stop resisting new music and to embrace our doing both new works and the great masterpieces.”
Included among Harler’s choristers are several from Chestnut Hill, such as Bobbie Konover, a member for 15 years. “I joined,” she said, “for the high standard of quality Alan has maintained. I wanted to sing in a chorus that performed my favorite pieces, the big works of Bach and Brahms, but I’ve come to love the new music as well.” One of Konover’s students at Germantown Friends School was Paul Rardin, Harler’s recently appointed successor at Mendelssohn Club.
Jane Uptegrove of Chestnut Hill joined Mendelssohn Club in 1986. “Working with Alan has been tremendous,” she said. Chestnut Hill’s Ellie Elkinton originally joined in 1978, took a sabbatical to raise a family and then rejoined in 1990. “I’ve been singing all my life,” she explained, “and singing for Alan has deepened my appreciation of the great masterpieces as well as contemporary music.” Emily Erb of West Mt. Airy, a member of the choir at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, joined just six months ago. “I came for the masterpieces, but I’ve fallen in love with the new music, too.”
If Alan Harler’s goals were to establish a viable chorus, perform the masterpieces of the repertoire and foster the composition of new music, it is incontrovertible that his 27-year tenure has been a very successful venture. To purchase tickets for “St. Matthew Passion,” visit www.mcchorus.org.
Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra concluded their three-week celebration of Russian music with a trio of concerts in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall Jan. 28, 30 and 31. Although two of the three scores performed were, indeed, composed by a Russian — in this case, Dmitri Shostakovich — it was the rendition given the program’s opening work that was the highpoint of Saturday evening’s concert.
That specific score can arguably be dubbed the most famous piece of classical music ever written — Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5 in C minor.” Its opening two phrases have come to define classical music since its premiere in 1808. And well they should, for within the parameters of those two phrases Beethoven packed both the summation of all that had gone before as well as a promise of all that was to come. Beethoven’s mastery of both counterpoint and development brought Bach’s contrapuntal genius to its final flowering and prepared the way for the developmental techniques of Wagner, Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler.
Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony — all nine of his symphonies, for that matter, as well as the middle and late symphonies of Haydn and Mozart plus the “Unfinished” and Great C major Symphonies of Schubert — form the canon of the standard repertoire that should always be at the core of any major symphony orchestra’s season.
Nezet-Seguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra gave the Fifth Symphony a sterling reading Saturday evening before a packed house. There were moments when he conjured up the famous “Philadelphia Sound” of Stokowski and Ormandy for the strings, yet never allowed it to overwhelm the eloquence of the woodwind choir and the scintilating brilliance of the brass section.