by Michael Caruso
Two of Chestnut Hill’s churches hosted musical events last weekend that also functioned as fundraisers for local and international charities. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church presented the second in its series of “Five Fridays,” Nov. 13. The following evening, the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill brought its “Festival of Music and Arts” to a close with performances of Bach’s “Magnificat” and Handel’s “Foundling Hospital Anthem.” The former supports Northwest Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network and Face to Face Germantown, both of which strive to re-integrate the homeless and unemployed into society; the latter was a benefit for the Syrian refugees living in camps in Lebanon. Both concerts drew impressively large audiences.
This is the fifth anniversary season for “Five Fridays,” and the weekend’s concert was festive in size for both the number of performers as well as the audience that filled most of the pews of St. Paul’s Neo-Gothic sanctuary. Rebecca Myers Hoke, the parish choir’s professional soprano, was joined by the Prometheus Chamber Orchestra for a program comprised of Bach’s Cantata #51: “Jauchset Gott in allen Landen” (Shout for Joy to God in Every Land), Benjamin Britten’s “Simple Symphony,” a movement from Benjamin Boyle’s Cantata: “To One in Paradise,” and arrangements for voice and string orchestra of beloved songs such as “Danny Boy.”
Throughout the repertoire, early to late, Hoke’s voice was a model of timbral clarity and flawless pitch. She sang the Bach with eloquence and intensity, and she delicately caught the melting nostalgia of “Danny Boy,” “The Salley Gardens” and “The Last Rose of Summer,” conjuring up memories of vintage recordings of Dame Nellie Melba, Lily Pons and Rosa Ponselle from an era of exquisite tone and aristocratic lyricism.
The conductor-less Prometheus Chamber Orchestra was at its best in Britten’s “Simple Symphony,” based on tunes the English composer wrote when he was still a child. The score’s glowing mastery of exterior classical structure and interior evocation of the English music of the countryside came across joyously. But uneven ensemble was never far from the surface — and occasionally bubbled over — throughout the Bach and the other works. The concept of even so small an ensemble as a chamber orchestra playing without a conductor is quaint at best and troubling more often than not.
BACH & HANDEL
While there’s no question that Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frederic Handel were the titans of the Baroque period of the 17th and early 18th centuries, they’re not exactly twin peaks. At his very best — that is in his finest operas and “Messiah” — Handel achieves a level of genius approached by few other composers, perhaps only Ludwig van Beethoven.
But then there’s J.S. Bach, whose music occupies a realm unknown by any other composer. So when you place mediocre Handel — and that’s being unduly generous to the “Foundling Hospital Anthem” — on the same program with Bach at his best — the “Magnificat” (My soul doth magnify the Lord), for instance — you can’t help but wish that an instrumental work by Bach had opened the concert and properly led the way into the “Magnificat.”
Bach’s setting of the text taken from the Gospel of St. Luke that chronicles the Virgin Mary’s statement of faith upon her Visitation to St. Elizabeth (the mother of St. John the Baptist) shortly after the Annunciation by the Archangel Gabriel is peerless. Every Latin word is set with a flawless command on the surface of the sound and inflection of the language and, far more importantly, a profound understanding of the spiritual meaning of those words.
Dan Spratlan, Chestnut Hill Presbyterian’s music director, conducted the congregation’s Gallery Choir, professional soloists, and Baroque Consort with consummate care for each small detail of the score. I’m still hoping to hear the instrumentalists in a program of Bach concerti and suites all their own, which is why I would have preferred their playing a “Brandenburg” Concerto, for example, instead of joining the choir and soloists for a solid rendition of the mostly forgettable “Foundling Hospital Anthem.”