by Michael Caruso
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, marked the opening of Holy Week with a special Choral Evensong entitled “Meditations on the Passion of Christ.” The service was celebrated Sunday, March 29, Palm Sunday, and featured a roster of choral pieces the likes of which the choir of any cathedral in the world — Anglican or Roman Catholic — would have strained to perform at all and most likely would have failed to perform nearly as well.
After a beautifully played organ prelude — Cesar Franck’s “Priere” — by the parish’s organ scholar, Joseph Russell, music director Zachary Hemenway led the choir in a stunning rendition of Victoria’s “Hosanna Filio David” (Hosanna to the Son of David). The score is a superb example of the High Spanish Renaissance — spectacularly multi-layered polyphony expressed through expressive modal harmonies — and the choir sang it with a sense of authority that most likely equaled that of any cathedral choir in Spain itself.
Bairstow’s “The Lamentation” deals with its extensive text in the manner of traditional Anglican Psalm settings — homophonic textures, sweet harmonies and elegant phrases — until, at the conclusion of each of its three verses, he set the line “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return until the Lord thy God” with surpassing power. Accompanied by Russell, the choir under Hemenway’s direction allowed the three climaxes to be achieved organically and dramatically.
The choir returned to the back of the church for de Lassus’ “Timor et Tremor” (Fear and Trembling). Sung in unaccompanied Latin, its flawless rendition displayed the choir’s immaculate tuning and expressive phrasing to exquisite advantage. The sopranos sang particularly well, evoking the shimmering sounds of the boy trebles of cathedral choirs in the Renaissance without attempting to imitate them.
The unaccompanied choir lent an air of touching fragility to Chilcott’s “God So Loved the World,” effortlessly negotiated the angular harmonic progressions of Gesualdo’s “O Vos Omnes” (O all ye that pass by the way), offered an immaculate blend between the individual voices in Leighton’s “Drop, Drop Slow Tears” and closed the service with a glowing rendition of Friedell’s “Jesus, So Lowly.”
FIVE FRIDAYS: The next chamber music recital in St. Paul’s “Five Fridays” is scheduled for April 10, 7:30 p.m., and features violinist Luosha Fang, violist Ayana Kozasa and cellist Gabriel Cabezas in music by Wiancko, Schoenberg and Mozart. More information at www.fivefridays.org.
ON THE MISSISSIPPI
Italian maestro Gianandrea Noseda wrapped up his two-week stint guest conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra by leading a program that paired the ensemble’s first performances of one score and the return of a repertoire staple. The latter was Mahler’s “Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor;” the former was Michael Daugherty’s “Reflections on the Mississippi” for tuba and orchestra. The set of three concerts provided the Orchestra’s principal tuba player, Carol Jantsch, with her first performances as a soloist in a subscription concert.
To write that “Reflections on the Mississippi” sounds like the score for a movie that takes place along or nearby America’s longest river isn’t meant as criticism. It bares striking similarities to portions of Chester native Alex North’s music for the 1958 film “The Long Hot Summer.” It’s one of the most accomplished scores by a musician who began his career at Settlement Music School in South Philadelphia and went on to study at the Curtis Institute of Music and then the Juilliard School of Music in New York City before heading west to Hollywood.
Like North and George Gershwin in his symphonic scores, Daugherty infused his chromatic tonality with the sultry sounds, enticing harmonies and energetic rhythms of Jazz. Jantsch’s technical command was splendid Saturday evening, March 28, in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. More memorable, still, was her ability to use the tuba’s deeply burnished tones to add a tellingly personal voice to the larger ensemble’s sonic tone painting.
Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is a gargantuan work that requires an interpreter who doesn’t lose sight of the forest for the trees but who also doesn’t slight any of those individual trees — and who can then bring both visions together into a compelling delineation of the composer’s tortured view of the world. Although I don’t feel Noseda completely missed the mark on these points, I do feel he didn’t convincingly hit any one of them, either. His wasn’t so much an ineffective reading as it was an inconclusive one.