by Michael Caruso
The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill closed its season of “Cantatas and Chamber Music” Sunday, May 22, with a concert featuring its 22-member Gallery Choir. Conducted by the congregation’s music director, Daniel Spratlan, accompanied by organist Ken Lovett and performed in the church’s main sanctuary, the choir’s singing of 12 daunting works was superb.
Spratlan wisely chose four unaccompanied works to open the concert. Stephen Paulus’ “The Road Home,” Michael Head’s “Little Road to Bethlehem,” Will Todd’s “My Lord Has Come” and Eriks Esenwalds’ “O Salutaris” (O sacrifice that brings salvation) gave the singers and Spratlan the chance to find their choral “sea legs,” so to speak. Amazingly, blend, balance, diction and phrasing were right on the mark from the start.
Spratlan and his choristers offered sweet reassurance in “The Road Home,” the nostalgic sound of Christmases of long ago in “Little Road to Bethlehem” and transparency of texture in “My Lord Has Come.” One heard finer Latin diction in “O Salutaris” than you’ll likely ever hear from the Choir of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican let alone from any local Roman Catholic parish’s choir. Soprano soloist Rebecca Siler’s singing here was especially beautiful for its purity of timbre.
The choir moved up to the gallery for Herbert Howells’ “Like As the Hart” to be close to the console of the church’s splendid Mander pipe organ and organist Ken Lovett. It’s a mighty work yet one not without its intimate moments. Spratlan elicited a rendition from his choristers and Lovett that spanned the gamut of dynamics to project a broad range of emotions.
Felix Mendelssohn’s warmly romantic “Hear My Prayer” was sung and played powerfully and sensitively while the reading given Jonathan Dove’s “Seek Him that Maketh the Seven Stars” evoked the haunting, hypnotic seduction of its cumulative repetitions.
The choir returned to the front of the church for the final section of the program, four unaccompanied works composed by Thomas Juneau. Born in 1977, Juneau is on staff at St. Joseph’s University, writing Latin sacred choral music that is probably more frequently performed in either Presbyterian or Episcopal churches than it’s ever programmed in Catholic parishes, where Latin is viewed with deep suspicion.
“Ave Verum Corpus” (Hail, true body), “Lux Aeterna” (May eternal light shine on them), “Tenebrae factae sunt” (Darkness fell) and “Virga Jesse” (The branch from Jesse) all received interpretations that caught their spiritual substance through singing of strikingly varied dynamics under Spratlan’s inspired direction.