by Michael Caruso
The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill continued its Sunday afternoon series of “Cantatas and Chamber Music” recitals Feb. 21 in its renovated Burleigh Cruikshank Memorial Chapel. Music director Daniel Spratlan led soprano Rebecca Siler, alto Maren Montalbano Brehm, tenor James Reese and himself in three movements from Josquin Des Prez’s celebrated Missa: “Pange Lingua” (Sing, my tongue, the savior’s glory) and David Lang’s “The little match girl passion” in its original version for four solo voices and percussion accompaniment.
Spratlan’s decision to preface the Lang with the Josquin was a stroke of historical/musical genius. Josquin’s setting of the Mass was based on the “cantus firmus” (the strong voice) of the Gregorian chant used by the Church of Rome during its Maundy Thursday liturgy for centuries upon centuries when, early in the Renaissance, he employed it as the thematic foundation of this polyphonic masterpiece.
Heard in the four-voice arrangement of its original conception, it’s blazingly apparent that Lang also employed the “cantus firmus” technique to control the complex voicing of his setting of a Hans Christian Andersen story about “the little match girl.”
Wisely, Spratlan and his three colleagues sang the original plainsong of “Pange Lingua” and then began with the Mass’ first movement, the “Kyrie.” Tenor James Reese opened the movement with dazzling clarity of tone and eloquence of phrasing, with soprano Rebecca Siler following suit. Maren Montalbano Brehm offered a timbre that recalled the male altos of Renaissance cathedral choirs while Spratlan offered a burnished bass coloring.
Lang’s 15-movement “The little match girl passion” recounts the surprisingly ghoulish story of a homeless child who freezes to death because no one reaches out to save her except her beloved and loving grandmother in heaven who welcomes her into a better home. Through a plethora of textures and echoes, vocal layers intertwining one upon the other and haunting harmonies enhancing a poetic yet potent text, Lang’s music chronicles the final earthly journey of a little girl who stands for all those members of our contemporary society left behind by ephemeral prosperity.
The singing was technically impeccable, yet it was never the end in itself. Rather, it was the vessel through which the composer’s passionate commitment to the profound meaning of the text was communicated to its appreciative audience.
The next “Cantatas and Chamber Music” concert is scheduled for Sunday, April 17, 5 p.m., and features music by J.S. Bach.
West Mt. Airy’s Paul Rardin will lead the Mendelssohn Club in a program of music from Eastern Europe that will also offer tributes to his predecessor, Alan Harler. The concert is scheduled for Saturday, March 5, 7:30 p.m., in the Temple University Performing Arts Center at the intersection of Broad St. and Polett Walk in North Philly.
Rardin, a K-12 alumnus of Germantown Friends School who is in his first year as music director of the Mendelssohn Club chorus, will be joined by organist Michael Stairs to perform, among other works, two world premiere “Alleluias for Alan”: Andrea Clearfield’s “Alleluia” and Jennifer Higdon’s “Alleluia.”
Alan Harler was the music director of the Mendelssohn Club for 27 years, taking over the reins of the chorus at a time when its very existence was called into question by previous poor direction. He oversaw its transformation from one of Philadelphia’s weakest choral ensembles to perhaps its strongest. Along the way, Harler established the Mendelssohn Club as one of the premier commissioners of new music from local composers.
“It was an honor to have been asked to write this work in celebration of Alan Harler,” Clearfield said. “Our (previous) collaborations have been high points in my musical life. I am deeply grateful to Maestro Harler.”
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