by Michael Caruso
Hopes for a “grand slam” of four concerts in a row performed outdoors in Pastorius Park were dashed Wednesday, July 8, when thunderstorms and even a tornado in the region moved the performance indoors to the Springside Chestnut Hill Academy. Usually I’m disappointed with such a turn of events because there’s something special – almost uniquely so – about the out-of-doors setting of the natural amphitheater in Pastorius Park. It lends its natural beauty to the experience, transforming a musical event into a social engagement with musical accompaniment in a way that speaks so well of Chestnut Hill’s being Greater Philadelphia’s perfect blend of urban and suburban.
This time around, however, the change of venue worked for the better. I can’t imagine having been able to fully appreciate the incredible talents of singer-songwriter Jesse Ruben in the wide-open expanse of the Park rather than in the more intimate setting of an auditorium in which he didn’t have to over-project either his singing or his guitar playing to be heard but, rather, had the opportunity to focus his performance on each individual member of his audience.
And what a talent he is, both as a singer and a songwriter. His opening number, “Unbreakable,” was delivered in a clear, sweet tenor voice accompanied by simple yet subtle guitar harmonies that permitted him to soften the dynamic level whenever he wanted to convey a more personal and telling revelation of the full meaning behind the words.
“This Is Why I Need You” sported a laid back tempo, relaxed rhythms, unembellished guitar accompaniment, and lyrics characterized by a host of unforced rhymes that achieved a surpassing level of poetry in their humorous yet all-too-true observations. Ruben followed this with the more upbeat “I Believe You Elizabeth.” Boasting a sophisticated structure of elegantly shaped phrases, played with expertly chosen dynamics, and sung perfectly in tune and with crisp yet natural diction, Ruben displayed a mastery of the use of falsetto most impressive for a singer less than 30 years of age. I was especially taken by his choice of which words to sing completely unaccompanied by guitar.
In “Fearless,” Ruben colored not just the volume but the tone of his voice to convey the meaning of the lyrics in the fashion of a vocalist specializing in the “Great American Songbook” of pop classics, while in “Love Don’t Turn Your Back on Me Now” he displayed a remarkable degree of smarts regarding pacing the narrative, pulling his audience into the song’s story line. In “Trying My Best,” Ruben referenced his struggle to recover from Lyme disease with disarming self-mockery. His tone was slightly harder-edged in “Nothin’s Gonna Bring Me Down,” and he channeled youthful exuberance into “Ace of Spades.”
But for an old-timer like me, Ruben was at his most impressive inhabiting the wistful charm of Harold Arlen’s “If I Only Had a Heart” from “The Wizard of Oz” and the suave yet impassioned sophistication of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.” In particular, he made the latter all his own, singing it as though he were composing it then and there on the spot rather than performing a song sung by all of the great vocal artists of our time, including the incomparable Frank Sinatra. It was an unforgettable musical moment.
The Choir of Sidney Sussex College of the University of Cambridge in Great Britain made two stops in Philadelphia last week. Their program was first performed Thursday, July 9, in the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting House; the second concert took place in the Roman Catholic Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter & Paul at Logan Circle on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Center City Philadelphia.
Unlike the choirs of men & boys (trebles, male altos, tenors, baritones & basses) at such famous Cambridge Colleges as King’s, St. John’s and Jesus, the Choir of Sidney Sussex (along with the other 17 colleges with choirs) is comprised of adult female sopranos & altos and male tenors and basses who are students at Cambridge. David Skinner, the Choir’s first professional director, led the ensemble of 13 women and 11 men in Orlando Gibbons’ “O Clap Your Hands,” William Byrd’s “Ne irascaris, Domine,” William Croft’s “O Lord, rebuke me not,” Herbert Howells “Take him earth for cherishing,” C.H.H. Parry’s “Lord, let me know mine end,” and Eric Whitacre’s “Sleep” and “This Marriage.”
The Choir sang beautifully throughout the program. Ensemble was pristine, tempi were flexible, dynamics were broadly ranged, pitch held immaculately, blend and balance were flawless, and the singing was invested with contrapuntal clarity and expressive intensity. I felt that the Byrd received the finest rendition of the evening. Composed to mark the removal of the Most Blessed Sacrament from London’s Old St. Paul’s Catholic Cathedral upon the death of Queen Mary Tudor in 1558, its majestic dignity seemed to catch the mournful solemnity for Byrd of the symbolic moment when Protestantism replaced Catholicism as the religion of the realm upon the succession of Queen Elizabeth I and her creation of the Church of England. Skinner and his Choir sang the music with a haunting passion that caught one’s breath and touched one’s heart.