by Michael Caruso
The Academy of Vocal Arts performed “Jubilate,” its program of sacred vocal and choral music, three times this past weekend, choosing as venues three of Greater Philadelphia’s most architecturally prominent Episcopal churches. The first of these concerts took place Friday evening in the Neo-Gothic majesty of St. Paul’s Church here in Chestnut Hill; Bryn Mawr’s splendid Byzantine-Romanesque Church of the Redeemer was the site of Saturday evening’s concert; and the program received its final rendition Sunday evening in the Victorian-Romanesque grandeur of the Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square.
East Falls’ K. James McDowell, AVA’s president and executive director, recognized several years ago that many of his school’s students came with only a superficial knowledge of the sacred vocal and choral repertoire. As fewer and fewer churches maintain music programs that feature the tremendous canon of sacred classical music, fewer and fewer professional-bound young singers arrive at institutions such as AVA – the country’s only full-scholarship school focusing on the art of singing – having sung any of this music.
Chestnut Hillers have mostly been shielded against this de-constructional onslaught. Both of our Episcopal parishes – St. Paul’s and St. Martin-in-the-Fields – and the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill have nourished an appreciation of great sacred music in their liturgies through choral programs of their own that perform these timeless classics. Local Roman Catholics haven’t been as lucky. They perhaps have only two options, both of which require a little travel, if they wish to enjoy the Church of Rome’s peerless musical patrimony: attending either the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter & Paul on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway or Old St. Joseph’s Catholic (Jesuit) Church in Society Hill.
AVA’s program for “Jubilate,” conducted by David Lofton and accompanied by a full chamber orchestra, included selections from Bach’s Cantata No. 83 and “St. Matthew Passion,” Handel’s “Israel in Egypt” and “Coronation Anthem: Zadok the Priest,” Mozart’s Mass in C minor, “Grabmusik” and more.
All were performed with such consummate artistry and interpretive conviction that one couldn’t help but hope that sometime in the near future AVA considers occasionally programming longer excerpts from such a roster of masterpieces.
Mezzo Allegra de Vita’s rendition of “Erbarme dich” from Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” was certainly one of the highlights of the evening. She employed the creamy warmth of her voice to deliver Bach’s eloquently shaped melody to the utmost emotional effect. For those of us who consider Bach the greatest of all composers, this was an interpretation to cherish.
Tenor Matthew White sang the “Gratias agimus tibi” from Puccini’s “Messa di Gloria” with glowing tonal beauty, immaculate Latin diction and a flawless command over the broadest range of dynamics. His softening at the top of his range was breathtaking. Tenor Alasdair Kent started out a tad tight and constricted in the “Cujus animam gementem” from Rossini’s “Stabat Mater,” but as the daunting aria continued, his voice opened up boldly, enabling him to hit the score’s climactic High C with dazzling ease.
Baritone Anthony Whitson-Martini sang the “Hostias” from Faure’s “Missa da Requiem” as if he were a medieval priest (who just so happens to have a glorious voice), chanting the liturgy with the appropriate reverence and compassion due its text. Mezzo Alexandra Schenck and baritone Ethan Simpson sang “O Rest in the Lord” and “I Go on My Way,” respectively, from Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” with delicacy and intensity.
Piffaro, the Renaissance Band, will present “Mummer’s Delight” Saturday, March 19, 7:30 p.m., in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. Visit www.piffaro.org for more information.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, will present a special Palm Sunday Choral Evensong entitled “Meditations on the Passion of Christ” Sunday, March 20, 5 p.m.