by Michael Caruso
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, hosted its final Choral Evensong of the season Sunday afternoon, May 10. The service was preceded by a solo organ recital featuring Karl Robson, who played Louis Vierne’s Symphonie III, Opus 28, on the church’s magnificent Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ. The recital was part of a series of performances to help raise money for the Ann Stookey Memorial Fund for Music at St. Paul’s Church, helping to maintain one of the region’s finest pipe organs.
All of the previous solo organ recitals this season have featured a grab bag of individual pieces, intended to display both the vast variety of registrations of the organ, itself, and the talents of the organist. While the selections almost always gave a fine showing for the instrument and the instrumentalists, they didn’t as consistently come together musically as a convincing roster of works culminating in a finale that functioned as a summation of everything that went before.
Robson’s singular decision to play a single five-movement score was the wisest of the season because he depended upon Vierne, an inspired organist and composer, to offer the structural coherence for his recital. The result was a performance that showed the organ to have all the power of a full symphony orchestra alongside the intimacy of solo instruments heard in a chamber music setting, all laid out yet held tightly together in the context of a unified musical edifice.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that Robson’s technical and interpretive gifts were up to the mark, as well. He played as though he and the Aeolian-Skinner were affectionate collaborators, each aiding the other to achieve the goal of maximum expression. One can only hope that next year’s season of Choral Evensongs at St. Paul’s Church will once again be preceded by solo organ recitals
Choral Evensong began with a lovely reading under music director Zachary Hemenway’s command of Healy Willam’s Introit: “Rise up my love,” sung starting at the back of the Church and then processing up into the chancel. The flawless blend, expert balance and immaculate tuning caught the text’s gentle joy as Spring replaces Winter, in spirit as well as the weather.
Bryan Kelly’s energetic, syncopation-filled setting of the traditional text of the “Magnificat” included a festive organ accompaniment, played idiomatically by organ scholar Joseph Russell, and bouncy rhythms sung with exemplary precision and naturalness by the choir.
Hemenway and his choristers caught the darker mood of the “Nunc Dimittis,” projecting its delicate dissonances through to their unaffected resolutions. The anthem of the day, Richard Wayne Dirksen’s “Sing, ye faithful, sing with gladness,” featured an exquisite soprano solo sung beautifully by Rebecca Hoke.
The Choirs of St. Paul’s Church will join those of the First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia (Andrew Senn director), First United Methodist Church of Germantown (Kevin O’Malia director) and the Roman Catholic Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter & Paul and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia (John Romeri director) in a concert of sacred choral music entitled “Praise!” Wednesday, June 10, 8 p.m., in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall.
The concert will be one of the last times to hear Romeri leading his choirs. He was unceremoniously, ungraciously and unfairly forced to resign his posts as director of the office of liturgy & music for the Archdiocese and music director for the Cathedral Basilica by Archbishop Charles Chaput as of June 30 and the end of the Summer, respectively.
His crime? Attempting to return the Cathedral to its proper place as the leading church in the Archdiocese, both musically and liturgically, after it had fallen on tragically hard times prior to his coming to Philadelphia when Justin Cardinal Rigali was its archbishop. Romeri may not have been able to challenge the supreme standard established by Westminster Roman Catholic Cathedral in London, England, but he struggled manfully and successfully to raise that standard well beyond that which he had inherited.
We here in Chestnut Hill have a personal connection to his dismissal. Zachary Hemenway, the music director at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, was Romeri’s organ scholar at St. Louis Cathedral in the city of the same name when Cardinal Rigali was its archbishop. Dare I posit the thought that it seems most un-Christian to have dismissed him after he had moved to Philadelphia simply over a clash of musical tastes? We’re also lucky in Chestnut Hill in that our two Episcopal parishes, St. Paul’s and St. Martin’s, form a quartet of churches with St. Mark’s and St. Clement’s in center city offering among the finest and fullest music programs in the region.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, in collaboration with Astral Artists, presented its final “Five Fridays” recital May 15. Violinist Luosha Fang and pianist Hugh Sung performed a program of works by Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann as part of the parish’s ongoing efforts to raise money for Northwest Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network and Face to Face Germantown. The two charities help those making the transition from living in shelters to living on their own and finding and keeping gainful employment. The church turns over all ticket sales to the two organizations, covering the costs of the recitals and the receptions that follow on its own.
Although Fang spoke movingly about the emotions expressed in the Mozart, it wasn’t until the second movement of the Sonata No. 21 in E minor for Piano & Violin that her playing approached expressivity. Throughout the first movement, it was Sung’s efforts on the church’s vintage Steinway that carried the music interpretively. Both, however, delineated the poignancy of the second movement.
Beethoven’s Sonata No. 6, Opus 30, no. 1, for Violin & Piano offers and received a more balanced reading. Fang and Sung put forward an evenly balanced dialogue in the first movement, offered touching lyricism in the second and engaging high spirits in the third.
All he same, it wasn’t until after intermission in Schumann’s Sonata No. 2, Opus 121, for Violin & Piano that Fang & Sung’s finest efforts were heard. They caught the thrusting drama of the first movement, the obsessive drive of the second, the give-and-take of the third and the sweeping melodrama of the fourth in playing that was admirably balanced and efficaciously projected.