by Michael Caruso
My long summer drought without excellently performed sacred choral music was quenched Sunday, Sept. 13, when the Choir of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church hosted its first Choral Evensong of the season. This traditional afternoon liturgy served as a double celebration: in honor of St. Cecilia, the 3rd century Roman martyr and patron saint of music, and a thanksgiving for church musicians, both locally and throughout the world.
During the service, St. Paul’s rector, the Rev. E. Clifford Cutler, inducted into the parish choir 13 (two others were away) young choristers who had been singing with the other choir members for the past year and who are now considered full members of the ensemble. The combined children’s and adult choir currently numbers 85, making it one of the largest choruses in the region as well as one of its most finely honed and masterfully led by choirmaster Zach Fritsch-Hemenway.
The three major choral pieces of the classic Rite I Liturgy of Anglican Evensong (established by Thomas Cranmer, the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury in the mid-16th century) are the “Magnificat,” the “Nunc Dimittis” and the Offertory Anthem. For Sunday afternoon’s service, the musical settings of the first two Scriptural texts were by T. Tertius Noble; at the Offertory, the choir sang Herbert Howells’ “A Hymn for Saint Cecilia.”
Fritsch-Hemenway captured the no-nonsense potency of Noble’s “Magnificat” (My soul doth magnify the Lord) through singing of flawless blend across the vocal registers and dramatic shifts in dynamics from hushed pianissimos up to exhilarating fortissimos. Noble’s “Nunc Dimittis” (Lord, now lettest thy servant depart in peace) is an appropriately gentler score, and Fritsch-Hemenway elicited singing that set an autumnal mood.
Howell’s “Hymn to Saint Cecilia” is justly acclaimed as one of the finest examples of Anglican Church music composed in the 20th century, here employed to honor a saint of the Roman Church most Catholic parishes have long ago forgotten in practice if not in name. Fritsch-Hemenway projected the lyricism of its long contrapuntal lines with sensitivity and assurance.
Continuing a tradition established last year, Evensong was preceded by the first of this season’s “Ann Stookey Memorial Recitals.” Sunday’s featured performer was Rich Spotts, who played four movements from Charles Tournemire’s monumental “L’Orgue Mystique.” Spotts conjured up a tonal palette of shimmering hues and tints that dazzled the ear.
Piffaro, the world acclaimed Renaissance instruments ensemble, will open its 30th anniversary season with a trio of concerts October 2, 3 and 4. The middle performance will take place Saturday evening in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, starting at 7:30 p.m.
The program is entitled “Renaissance Favorites” and is comprised of selections from Piffaro’s most popular concerts of the past three decades. Several former members of the ensemble will be returning to play with the resident musicians throughout the entire 2015-16 season, including Eric Anderson of Glenside, currently director of the Germantown Branch of Settlement Music School.
“I started playing with Piffaro (then the Renaissance Wind Band) in 1987,” Anderson explained, “when I moved to Philadelphia from Columbus, Ohio, to work for Settlement Music School. One of my colleagues at Settlement knew a member of Piffaro and told them that a sackbut player was moving to town.”
Anderson recalled that he had been introduced to Renaissance music in general and the sackbut in particular through Early Music in Columbus, a concert series sponsored by Capital University, where he was employed and played with the Early Interval. The group specialized in Medieval and Renaissance music. Anderson also learned to play the recorder, krumhorn and various period percussion instruments. The sackbut is a Renaissance/Baroque prototype of the modern trombone while the krumhorn is a double reed woodwind instrument whose range has been replaced in modern orchestras by oboes and bassoons.
For ticket information, visit www.piffaro.org/calendar/season.