by Michael Caruso
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, celebrated the opening of Holy Week with “Meditations on the Passion of Christ” late Palm Sunday afternoon, March 20. Parish music director Zachary Fritsch-Hemenway led organ scholar Joseph Russell and the parish’s 60-member Adult Choir in performances of a daunting roster of choral pieces written for the holiest week of the Christian liturgical calendar.The works included “Motet for Passion Sunday” by Frank Ferko, “It Is a Thing Most Wonderful” by Phillip Moore, “Woefully Arrayed” by William Cornysh, “Crucifixus” by Antonio Lotti, “Give Me That Stranger” by Michael McCarthy and “Jesus, So Lowly” by Harold Friedell. Both the music and the singing of it were worthy of any of the great Anglican cathedrals across England or London’s Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral, where the musical establishments are the envy of the world. Chestnut Hillers are fortunate to have the chance to hear music of such quantity and quality sung so splendidly in their own neighborhood.
Palm Sunday is the day on which all Christian churches and denominations mark Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, the Holy City of the ancient Israelites and the site of the Temple first built by King Solomon and then rebuilt by King Herod under the auspices of the Roman Empire. It is the start of Holy Week, which includes Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Great Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday. It’s also a day on which the liturgies of the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican Churches read from Scripture the narrative of Christ’s Passion, which makes St. Paul’s “Meditations” entirely appropriate for the evening of Palm Sunday.
The music got underway with a beautifully textured rendition of Cesar Franck’s “Priere” for solo organ by the parish’s organ scholar, Joseph Russell. Utilizing the string registrations of the church’s peerless Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ, Russell conjured up the lustrous sounds of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s string section during its heyday under Eugene Ormandy’s baton. The full range of the individual voices of the score’s counterpoint, from top to bottom, glistened as they spoke with eloquent authority.
The choir’s singing started at the back of the church with the choristers processing to the sanctuary as they sang Ferko’s unaccompanied “Motet for Passion Sunday.” The score’s waves of harmonies were projected with a glowing tone that enveloped the congregation within its passage through dark chords into a bright final resolution.
Russell rejoined the music making for Moore’s “It Is a Thing Most Wonderful” with a flute-inflected introduction to music that beautifully recalled the plainsong (sung by the men) that preceded it. Ensemble, blend and balance were immaculate as Fritsch-Hemenway masterfully led his choir to the score’s delicate conclusion.
The afternoon’s most substantial work was the Renaissance composer William Cornysh’s “Woefully Arrayed,” sung by slightly more than half the choir, which had returned to the back of the church. Composed during the transition between medieval modality and the full major/minor tonality of the baroque style of Bach and Handel, its harmonic language both looks backward and forward, making its counterpoint remarkably tricky to negotiate without slipping out of tune. Fritsch-Hemenway’s choristers sang it superbly both technically and interpretively, delineating Christ’s suffering with burning intensity.
The afternoon’s loveliest work was Antonio Lotti’s “Crucifixus” – also the sole selection sung in Latin. Here the choir effortlessly projected the bracing clarity of the open vowels of the language of the ancient Romans, the very language spoken during Christ’s trial before the imperial governor, Pontius Pilate. Lotti’s command over dissonant imitative entrances of the music’s principal theme and their convincing resolutions was never more poignantly employed to convey the meaning of his text than it is here, and Fritsch-Hemenway elicited singing of exquisitely tortured beauty.
McCarthy’s “Give Me That Stranger” and Friedell’s “Jesus, So Lovely” brought the singing and the “Meditations” to a contemplative close.