by Michael Caruso

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, marked the end of the liturgical year with a Choral Evensong for the “Feast of Christ the King” Sunday afternoon, Nov. 20. Sunday, Nov. 27, will open the new liturgical year with the First Sunday of Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas, Dec. 25, the “Mass of Christ.”

Parish music director Zach Fritsch-Hemenway chose an all-Herbert Howells roster of choral pieces for this past Sunday’s Evensong. Howells’ “Prelude on the 34th Psalm” opened the service. The “Magnificat” and the “Nunc Dimittis” from his Evening Service for the Collegiate Church of St. Peter, Westminster, were the traditional choral settings, and his anthem, ”Thee Will I love, My God and King,” was sung at the Offertory. As companion pieces for the Responses, Fritsch-Hemenway chose those composed by Kenneth Leighton.

Organ scholar Joseph Russell gave a riveting rendition to the “Prelude on the 34th Psalm.” He captured its soft, intimate opening and closing without losing focus or direction, yet built its several imposing crescendos to brilliant climaxes that enveloped the congregation within a secure sonic structure.

Both the “Magnificat” and the “Nunc Dimittis” are dark works set in minor modes. They feature long melodic lines voiced in complex counterpoints and accompanied by bracing yet dense organ writing. Fritsch-Hemenway elicited singing of shining clarity of phrasing balanced against sumptuous warmth of tone. Together they projected the joy and gratitude of the texts drawn from Scripture. Most notable was the singing of the soprano section: clear as a bell, flawless blend, immaculate tuning and pristine diction.

Howells employed a more dissonant harmonic language for “Thee Will I Love, My God and King.” For most of its length, it’s a brooding work, and even at its more peaceful conclusion, there’s a quality of striving that touches a sympathetic vibration in the listener. It received a telling interpretation.

Most impressive of all, however, was the performance given the organ score that closed the Evensong: Charles Tournemire’s “Improvisation on the ‘Te Deum.’” It’s a fantastical work that conjures up a vivid sonic world of sprawling harmonic imagination. There are moments when you’re wondering if a madman hadn’t composed it, that is, of course, until Tournemire brings it all to a splendidly satisfying finale, rounding off the circle with a magician’s skill. It’s the kind of piece one should only hear on a pipe organ such as St. Paul’s Aeolian-Skinner played by a dazzling virtuoso and commanding interpreter such as Zach Fritsch-Hemenway.

ADVENT SEASON

The Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Chestnut Hill, will present Advent Lessons & Carols Sunday, Dec. 4, 5 p.m. Parish music director Erik Meyer explained that the service will feature a procession and musical program including Charles Parry’s “Never Weather-Beaten Sail,” William Byrd’s “Ave Verum Corpus,” Elizabeth Poston’s “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree,” Edward Bairstow’s “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent,” Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria” and Paul Manz’s “E’en So Lord Jesus.”

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, will present its annual Advent Lessons & Carols Sunday, Dec. 18, 5 p.m. And, if you can’t wait that long, Old St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church (Jesuit Fathers), 4th & Walnut Sts., Society Hill, will present its first Lessons & Carols on the First Sunday of Advent, Nov. 27, 4 p.m. Music director Pat Montenegro explained that the service will follow the liturgy established at England’s Truro Cathedral and updated at King’s College, Cambridge University. Music by Victoria, Handel, Elgar and Manz will be sung.

CURTIS OPERA

The Curtis Opera Theatre presented Benjamin Britten’s “The Rape of Lucretia” at the Prince Theater this past weekend. First performed in July, 1946, in the immediate aftermath of World War II, “Lucretia” remains a concisely potent denunciation of tyranny and its brutal effect on the individual.

Britten based his two-act English-language opera on a poetic libretto by Ronald Duncan. Its narrative is taken from the history of Rome at about 500 B.C., when the Romans overthrew their Etruscan overlords and established the Roman Republic. It was that republican structure of government rather than the limited democracy of Athens that formed the inspiration for the Founding Fathers when they wrote the Federal Constitution in Philadelphia between 1787-88. It’s also the governmental structure that collapsed under the weight of what little by little became the Roman Empire.

In Duncan’s telling, Tarquinius, the Etruscan Prince of Rome, rapes the chaste Lucretia while her husband Collantinus is out of the city fighting the Greeks. Despite all of her husband’s compassionate words and gestures, Lucretia’s shame is so overwhelming that she commits suicide. It is this act that inspires the Romans to throw off the Etruscans’ tyranny and establish their own Republic. Their constitution produced the Roman Law, which led directly to the English Common Law that is the basis of our own legal system.

Britten responded with one of his most focused scores. The instrumental writing for a 17-member chamber orchestra is as evocative of time and place and as revelatory of emotion as those for even his greatest operas, ”Peter Grimes” and “Billy Budd.” His vocal writing for all eight named characters is lyrical, dramatic and personal. His setting of the English language is as idiomatic as Puccini’s setting of Italian. The entire work is a template of the modern aesthetic, both narrative and reflective.

Conner Gray Covington’s conducting Saturday evening was superb for its textural transparency and rhythmic vitality. Jordan Fein’s stage direction – indeterminate contemporary – functioned beautifully. With but one seminal exception, the cast performed superbly.

Kendra Broom was splendid in the title role. Her dark tones and eloquent phrasing conjured up her love for her husband and her inconsolable shame at her violation. Vartan Gabrielian was a powerful Collantinus, projecting darkly stentorian tones and offering a deep well of compassion and outrage.

Evan Johnson and Tiffany Townsend were towering as the male and female chorus who delineate the narrative, while Dennis Chmelensky, Anastasia Sidorova and Emily Pogorelc rounded out the cast convincingly as Junius, Bianca and Lucia. Only Dogukan Kuran disappointed as Tarquinius. His characterization lacked convicted detail, and his voice lacked dynamic projection.

Contact NOTEWORTHY at Michael-caruso@comcast.net.

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