by Michael Caruso
The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill opened its season of “Cantatas and Chamber Music” recitals Sunday, Oct. 4, with a program entitled “Voices and Viols: Renaissance Madrigals, Motets and Dances.” Church music director Daniel Spratlan directed a choir that numbered seven at its fullest and a viol consort of four players in a roster of music both sacred and secular.
The afternoon’s principal composer was the Englishman William Byrd, who lived from 1540 to 1623. The span of his life straddled the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary Tudor, Elizabeth I and James I. As such, he lived through Henry’s initial separation from the Church of Rome, Edward’s imposition of Protestantism, Mary’s return to Catholicism, Elizabeth’s creation of the Church of England separated once again from Rome, and James’ unification of the thrones of England and Scotland. Throughout it all, Byrd remained a devout Roman Catholic who was permitted by Elizabeth to compose sacred choral music for his Church’s Latin Rites despite her own Protestantism.
Byrd was also musically transitional in that his music displays a clarification and simplification of the complex counterpoint of the High Renaissance and a move toward the simpler, more homophonic style of the Early Baroque.
Spratlan led his choir effectively in all three works. He also successfully colored the choir’s singing to delineate the different styles of music: Latin or English, sacred or secular. Of the individual vocalists throughout the program, none sang more expressively and stylistically than soprano Rebecca Siler, especially in “Have Mercy on Me” and “A Carol for Christmas Day.” She employed a mostly straight, vibrato-less tone to telling, dramatic effect.
Spratlan and his musicians are set to perform Bach’s “Magnificat” and Handel’s “Foundling Hospital Anthem” Saturday, Nov. 14, at 8 p.m.
Paul Rardin will launch his tenure as artistic director of the Mendelssohn Club Chorus with a concert set for Sunday, Oct. 18, 4 p.m. in the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square. The program features Mozart’s “Mass in C minor” and the world premiere of local composer Kile Smith’s “Agnus dei,” commissioned by the choir as a completion of Mozart’s unfinished score. Psalm settings by Felix Mendelssohn will round out the program.
I spoke with Rardin just prior to the choir’s Wednesday evening rehearsal at the Mary Louise Curtis Branch of Settlement Music School in the Queen Village section of the city. Mendelssohn Club has rehearsed there for the past 25 years. The school’s executive director Helen Eaton spoke of the value of such symbiotic relationships between Settlement and the region’s many exceptional musical ensembles.
Describing the concert, Rardin, a former West Mt. Airy resident and K-12 alumnus of Germantown Friends School, said, “I wanted this first concert to reaffirm our mission – a commitment to both past and future. The Mozart is one of the masterpieces of the 18th century, but Mozart left it incomplete. It has no ‘Agnus dei’ movement. Fortunately, Kile Smith has composed a single-movement setting of the ‘Agnus dei’ text for the Mendelssohn Club.
“We almost always sing some of Mendelssohn’s own music during our holiday concert at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill, but I wanted to include three of his unaccompanied motets in this concert, as well, as a chance to reclaim our name-sake. It’s not often that an amateur chorus the size of Mendelssohn Club (well over 100 members) sings a cappella, but I think it’s important to hold that up as a standard.”
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Saturday evening’s concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra in Verizon Hall was akin to getting together with old friends for me and other longtime orchestra followers. On the top of the list of pieces performed was Sibelius’ “Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major.” I heard the late Eugene Ormandy, the ensemble’s music director from 1936 to 1980, conduct this 20th century masterpiece in the Academy of Music, the orchestra’s former home, many times at the height of the legendary “Philadelphia Sound.”
Then there was the Suite No. 1 from “Peer Gynt” by Grieg that opened the concert. I’ve taught numerous Settlement Music School piano students solo arrangements of these very same pieces. Finally, there was Gil Shaham as the soloist in Bartok’s “Violin Concerto No. 2.” I first met Shaham during a rehearsal of the “Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto” with Wolfgang Sawallisch when the German maestro was the orchestra’s music director during the 1990s.
Once again, music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin displayed an uncanny ability to both resurrect that lustrous, glistening texture while offering his own unique addition to that characteristic “Philadelphia Sound.” Even more impressive, he captured the essence of Sibelius’ seminal contribution to the canon of the modern symphony. The Finnish master composed seven symphonies that adhere to the overall structure of the form created by Haydn in the 18th century but that invest those scores with a peerless level of concise, chromatic development.
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