by Michael Caruso
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, continued marking the season of Lent with a Choral Evensong Sunday, March 8. Choirmaster Zach Hemenway led the parish’s adult choir in music by Henry Purcell, Philip Radcliffe, C. Hylton Stewart & F.A. Hervey, Gabriel Jackson and Herbert Howells.
For the second time in as many Evensongs, the service got underway not with the usual unadorned setting of the Introit for the day (the third Sunday in Lent) but with a fully polyphonic anthem by Henry Purcell, the glory of the 17th century English Baroque, prior to the arrival of Handel in the early 18th century. Purcell’s “Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts” was sung in a warm tone, with perfectly blended parts, smoothly modulated phrases, and a seamless legato. Both Psalms – Nos. 142 & 143 – are rather dark and even foreboding in mood, and their settings according to Anglican chant by Stewart & Hervey matched their music to their texts with only a slight upbeat at their respective conclusions with the “Glory be to the Father.” Hemenway and his choristers caught their somber tones.
The afternoon’s most impressive renditions were those given to Gabriel Jackson’s “Magnificat” and “Nunc Dimittis” from the contemporary composer’s “Truro (Cathedral) Service.” The former starts with a soprano solo, soon followed by more of the sopranos and altos, and then finally by the full choir. The latter begins with a baritone solo, then more of the men, and finally the full choir. The “Magnificat” remains fairly austere in tone throughout, yet colored by gentle dissonances.
The afternoon’s final choral piece was Howells’ lovely anthem, “Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks.” If Purcell was the glory of the early English Baroque, then Howells was the glory of the Anglo-Catholic Oxford Movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the Church of England commissioned so many beautiful scores to enhance its revived liturgies. In music both traditional and modern, Howells delineated the poetic beauty of the text through exquisitely shape phrases and eloquently voiced harmonies.
Music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin returned to the podium of the Philadelphia Orchestra to conduct three performances March 5-7 of a program that featured three classically constructed scores. The concert opened with Haydn’s “Oxford Symphony No. 92 in G major,” continued with Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor” with soloist Emanuel Ax, and concluded with Vaughan Williams’ “Symphony No. 4 in E minor.”
It’s nothing short of amazing – and truly encouraging – how palpable Nezet-Seguin’s presence is felt in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. He receives more applause for merely walking out onstage than most conductors garner at the end of an excellent performance. Fortunately, he also elicits better playing from the Philadelphians than do any of the guest conductors who join them onstage. And – in the valuable tradition of his predecessor, Eugene Ormandy – he is well on his way to becoming an excellent accompanist of a soloist in a concerto.
The concert’s major work was Vaughan Williams’ “Fourth Symphony.” Written during the early years of the 1930s, it can be heard as the composer’s response to the rising tide of Fascism on the Continent and the portent of a second world war after the societal devastation of the first. Placed between the “Pastoral” Third Symphony and the nostalgic “Fifth Symphony,” the Fourth almost doesn’t sound like Vaughan Williams, at all. But the structural mastery and expressive scoring give him away, albeit in an unusually pessimistic mood.
Nezet-Seguin was at his commanding best here, overseeing an interpretation that held together with the tightness of a drum and that was delivered by splendid playing from every member of the Philadelphia Orchestra onstage.
Programming even the late symphonies of Haydn can be fraught with danger nowadays for symphony orchestras playing on modern instruments. Many a period instruments ensemble has moved beyond the Baroque era of Bach and Handel into the Classical style of Haydn and Mozart. As a result, some symphony conductors have shied away from late Haydn for fear of being accused of not appreciating an authentic, period fashion of interpretation.
Perhaps from a perfect combination of irrepressible youth and stylistic sophistication, Nezet-Seguin fearlessly led Haydn’s “Oxford” Symphony Saturday, March 7, before an audience that packed the house and gave him and the Orchestra a rousing ovation that was worthy of a concert’s grand finale. The strings played with both textural transparency and tonal luster, the woodwinds sang like an immaculately tuned cathedral choir, and the brass lent martial yet refined splendor to the composer’s masterful command over symphonic structure.
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