By Michael Caruso
It’s a rare moment when the Super Bowl enables a music critic to hear two music events on the same day instead of just one. But that’s precisely what happened for me Sunday, Feb. 5.
To make certain that those interested in hearing the first “Cantatas and Chamber Music” recital of 2017 at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill without missing out on any Super Bowl parties, music director Daniel Spratlan moved Sunday afternoon’s performance from its normal starting time of 5 p.m. to 3 p.m. The change enabled me to hear both that program of music by Schutz, Bach and Brahms at 3 and then make my way over to the Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields to hear their Choral Evensong at 5.
As per the norm, St. Martin’s music director Erik Meyer opened and closed the traditional Anglican afternoon service at the church’s lovely pipe organ. Although St. Martin’s instrument doesn’t boast the size of the Aeolian-Skinner masterpiece at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church or the stylistic focus (18th century Baroque and Classical) of the Mander pipe organ at Chestnut Hill Presbyterian, it is a beautifully balanced instrument with both mellow and brilliant registrations and one that produces the appropriate span of dynamics and tonal amplitude for the historic Norman Revival sanctuary in which it is placed.
During the years of his music directorship, Meyer has not only made himself one of the region’s finest organists, but he has become the true “lord and master” of the particular pipe organ on which he regularly performs. His rendition of the Evensong’s Prelude, Max Reger’s “Wie schoen leuchtet de Morgenstern” (“How lovely shines the morning star”), was a marvel of architectural structure.
Using an ongoing increase of registrations, Meyer built one phrase upon the next and one section upon the next until the work came to a resolute culmination. At the Evensong’s close, his performance of Maurice Durufle’s “Fugue in G minor” was a splendid explication of its theme through invigorating counterpoint that danced from start to finish.
The Evensong’s principal choral piece was Felix Mendelssohn’s anthem, “There shall a star from Jacob come forth, and a scepter from Israel rise up.” Its rolling harmonies in support of sweetly flowing melodies spaced out across the full range of soprano through bass were rendered with exemplary balance between the vocal lines and expert diction employed to convey the gentle assurance of its text.
David Hogan’s “Magnificat” (“My soul doth magnify the Lord”) and “Nunc Dimittis” (“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace”) comprised the afternoon’s two other major choral works. They formed a complementary pairing: the one joyous, the other reflective, connected by the same music for the closing text, “Glory be to the Father.” Both were sung with precise yet eloquent phrasing.
Earlier in the afternoon, I heard Daniel Spratlan conduct the eight core professional singers of Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church’s Gallery Choir in Heinrich Schutz’s “Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe” (“Lord, if I have but You”), Bach’s “Komm, Jesu, Komm” (“Come, Jesus, Come”), three motets by Brahms from his late Opus 110, and then at the close Bach’s “Singet dem Herrn” (“Sing to the Lord a new song”). Joining the choir in the Schutz and Bach were cellist Eve Miller, double bassist Heather Miller Lardern and the church’s organist Ken Lovett at its Robert Hicks harpsichord.
The concert didn’t hit its full stride until the closing Bach. There the choristers and the instrumentalists came together to project Bach’s infectious enthusiasm of praise. Not only were the individual choral lines delineated as vital, separate musical entities, but they each supported and inspired the others in a seamless fabric beautifully joined by the distinctive timbres of the cello and double bass and the rock solid rhythmic and harmonic foundation of the harpsichord.
The performances given the earlier scores in the program suffered from a lack of blend within the vocal consort, most especially regarding the singing of sopranos Julie Bishop and Rebecca Siler. The Burleigh Cruikshank Memorial Chapel is a tiny space seating no more than 70 comfortably. Its acoustics are extremely bright.
Bishop and Siler sang as though they were being accompanied by the other six singers rather than as part of a vocal ensemble of equals, which was what Schutz, Bach and Brahms had intended and hoped for. To write that there was no blending between their voices and that of their fellow musicians is to state the obvious.
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