by Michael Caruso
In celebration of the consecutive holy days of All Saints and All Souls (Nov. 1 and 2), St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, performed the “Requiem Mass” of Maurice Durufle late Sunday afternoon, the Eve of the Feast of All Souls. It was Greater Philadelphia’s most solemn and majestic marking of the day on which Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and many Anglican Christians pray for the souls of the faithful departed.
Following in the footsteps of Gabriel Faure’s sublime “Requiem Mass,” Durufle’s setting of the Catholic Church’s Latin Mass for the Dead calls upon the classic canon of Gregorian plainsong for its inspiration. These are melodies that trace their codification to Pope Gregory the Great in about 600 A.D. and that contain within their mellifluous contours all the harmonies that have graced Western music ever since. Surrounding these timeless chants, Durufle constructed an edifice of modern harmony that shifts between chromatic dissonance and tonal resolution in perfect sympathy with the Church of Rome’s ancient texts commending the souls of the faithful departed to the mercy of God through the salvation of Jesus Christ. Accompanied by organ, Durufle’s choral writing is among the most expressive in the entire repertoire.
It’s also among the most challenging, which makes the superb rendition it received Sunday afternoon by St. Paul’s Church Choir under the direction of Zach Fritsch-Hemenway all the more impressive. From the opening “Requiem aeternum, dona eis” (Rest eternal, grant unto them) to the closing “In Paradisum” (May the angels lead you into paradise), every movement was sung with a sense of heightened understanding of the reassurances of the Latin text. And most memorably of all, the choir’s command over the Latin words of a Roman Catholic liturgy with which few were familiar was simply astounding — and a potent testament to Fritsch-Hemenway’s incredible gifts as a choral director.
Few cathedral choirs anywhere in the world could have done nearly as well. Organ scholar Joseph Russell not only accompanied the singing beautifully, he prefaced the “Requiem Mass” with a splendid performance of Durufle’s Suite Opus 5 on the church’s Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ. Perhaps best of all, the church was virtually packed.
Marin Alsop guest conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra Oct. 29, 30 and 31 in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. Her program contained two popular works in unusual guises and a third that has been an orchestral staple since the days of Leopold Stokowski, the orchestra’s music director from 1912 until 1938.
The first of the two well-known scores heard in a different version was Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” here played in a chamber music arrangement by Benno Sachs. The second was Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in its original jazz band version by Ferde Grofe for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra at its premiere in 1924 in New York’s Aeolian Hall. The staple was Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D minor.
At the time he composed the “Rhapsody,” Gershwin was not proficient as an orchestrator. It wasn’t until later works such as “An American in Paris” and the Concerto in F for Piano & Orchestra that he did his own scoring. Fortunately for him, Whiteman had on staff the incredibly talented Grofe (of “Grand Canyon” Suite fame) to flesh out Gershwin’s intentions. It wasn’t until later that the second version of the “Rhapsody” for full symphony orchestra was made. The earlier setting for jazz band is sonically more transparent and rhythmically edgier, whereas the symphonic version is more glamorous in a Hollywood sort of fashion. Either way, “Rhapsody in Blue” is a masterpiece that efficaciously marries Tin Pan Alley Jazz with modern classical music. Jon Kimura gave the solo piano part an adequate reading Saturday evening.
Alsop and a leaner Philadelphia Orchestra were far more successful with the Debussy. The smaller ensemble made manifest the French Impressionist’s breakthrough harmonies and unique method of thematic development through playing that was magical.
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