by Michael Caruso
The Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Chestnut Hill, hosted a Good Friday evening concert April 3 that was most appropriate for one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar. The Marinus Ensemble performed Haydn’s “The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross” in its string quartet version. The players were violinists Elizabeth Fayette and Grace Park, violist Rachel Yonan and cellist Tessa Seymour.
“The Seven Last Words of Christ” refers to the words spoken by Christ as he hung on the cross on Good Friday, according to the Gospels of Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Haydn was commissioned to compose a work for orchestra in 1785-86 to be performed on Good Friday in the Cathedral of Cadiz, Spain.
Haydn also composed an introduction and an additional ninth movement to aurally depict the earthquake that followed Christ’s death. That’s the arrangement the Marinus Ensemble performed before a large and supportive audience.
Although some period instruments purists might decry the use of modern, metal-strung instruments to play music of the 18th century, the undeniable advantage of doing so is the ease with which modern violins, violas and cellos hold their pitch whereas instruments that are gut-strung are woefully subject to the effects of temperature and humidity. There’s also the advantage of a far broader range of dynamics and the subsequent ability to easily voice one line over the other three.
All these technical assets came into play for the Marinus musicians and enabled them to deliver an imaginatively conceived and beautifully played interpretation.
Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra were joined by the Westminster Symphonic Choir, the American Boychoir and five vocal soloists for two performances of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” April 1 and 4 in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. Alongside the singing and playing, the interpretation included staging by James Alexander.
The usual justification for staging a work never intended to be staged by its creator is that contemporary audiences require something more than a mere concert rendition and virtually demand that a score taking more than three hours to perform be made more palatable for them by visual enhancements. Purists justifiably respond that the ensemble needs to call up the courage to either not perform the work, at all, or to tell that portion of its audience to stay away from those specific concerts. Managements understandably like neither option because they run the risk of alienating potential subscribers and/or donors.
And yet, troubling problems remain. Whereas Handel, Bach’s great contemporary, shifted from Italian opera to English oratorio only because the former fell out of fashion in London and the latter was the only legal way of setting a biblical story to music, Bach apparently never wanted to compose an opera. While “Messiah” was premiered in a Dublin theater and Handel never conducted it in a church, the “St. Matthew Passion” was intended for liturgical use in the Good Friday services of St. Thomas’ Lutheran Church in Leipzig, where Bach worked for the final two decades of his life.
In an era such as our own that supposedly worships at the shrine of “historical authenticity,” it strikes me as a tad hypocritical to stage what is not merely Bach’s greatest work but arguably the greatest score of music ever composed when Bach never wished it to be staged.
I caught the Wednesday evening concert and came away feeling that there were far more good points than those that were not so good. Although the young voices of the Westminster Symphonic Choir may have lacked operatic gruffness in the lower parts, one must never forget that this isn’t an opera and that the bass, baritone and tenor voices of the choir of St. Thomas’ Church weren’t operatic, either.
Chestnut Hill College presents pianist Young-Ah Tak in recital Thursday, April 16, 7:30 p.m. in the East Parlor of St. Joseph’s Hall. She will perform Beethoven’s “Rondo in C major,” Schubert’s “Sonata in A minor,” Debussy’s Book One of “Images for Piano” and Liszt’s Concert Paraphrase on “Rigoletto.” Admission is free.
Donald Nally and The Crossing chamber choir, in collaboration with the Friends of the Jenks Academy of Arts and Sciences, will perform “May Day” Saturday, April 18, 2 p.m., in the school at 8301 Germantown Ave. The project was made possible through funding by the Presser Foundation and the Chestnut Hill Community Fund.
For more information visit www.CrossingChoir.com.