by Michael Caruso
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, marked the last Sunday before the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday with a Choral Evensong Feb. 29. The afternoon service’s roster of music included scores by Johann Sebastian Bach, Thomas Tallis, Bryon Adams and Ralph Vaughan Williams.
In almost any other setting, the afternoon’s opening work would have been its highpoint. But the choral pieces programmed by music director Zach Fritsch-Hemenway were so expertly chosen and splendidly interpreted that even a masterpiece by Bach was merely the festive announcement of other masterpieces to come.
Organ scholar Joseph Russell got things going with Bach’s Preaeludium in E in a rendition that displayed the church’s romantic/symphonic Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ. The score couldn’t have sounded more “authentically period” had it been played on the organ of St. Thomas Lutheran Church in Germany, where Bach worked for the final three decades of his life.
The registrations Russell selected were clear and bright yet smoothly molded to match each other in a way that recalled the sounds of either the Berlin Philharmonic or a concert grand piano made in Steinway’s factory in Hamburg. Russell projected the grandeur of its counterpoint with festive exuberance and the hypnotic inevitability of its development as it hurdled toward its final resolution.
The afternoon’s opening choral work was Thomas Tallis’ “O nata lux de lumine” (“O light from light begotten”), sung in the original Latin with the evenness of diction that recalled the feel of the finest silk. The score’s aching beauty, which looked back across the centuries to the original Gregorian chant on which it was based and then summed up all the sacred choral music that had been composed since, rolled out across the church from the labyrinth. The singing flowed unhindered by bar lines between the measures. Dynamics rose and fell according to the music’s luminous text. Perhaps most impressive of all was the perfect tuning of its modal cadences.
The service’s final choral work, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Let all the world in every corner sing,” received an equally memorable reading. Russell offered substantive organ accompaniment, and the choir sang with both precision and passion.
In between the Tallis and the Vaughan Williams, Fritsch-Hemenway led the “Magnificat” and “Nunc Dimittis” from Byron Adams’ Evening Service in A for All Saints’ Church, Beverly Hills. The two made a perfect pairing. The former was bright and powerful while the latter was peaceful and reflective. Most notable in the “Nunc Dimittis” was the tenor solo sung by Tyler Tejada. His voice floated out across the sanctuary projected via the straight tone of medieval plainsong in a haunting evocation of St. Simeon’s departure from this world.
St. Paul’s Church will celebrate its first Choral Evensong of Lent Sunday, March 12, at 5 p.m.
Philadelphia continues to shed its image as a conservative bastion. Case in point: This past weekend I caught performances of two modern operas, Bela Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” and John Adams’ “Dr. Atomic.” The former was performed “in concert” by the Philadelphia Orchestra Friday evening while the latter was presented fully staged by the Curtis Opera Theatre Saturday night. Both works were given compelling interpretations, and both received hearty applause from the large audiences on hand to see and hear them.
Composed between 1911 and 1918, “Bluebeard’s Castle” is a one-act opera that recalls the tale of horror regarding the Hungarian Duke Bluebeard, whose first three wives mysteriously disappeared once inside his castle. Judith, his fourth wife, strives mightily to uncover the deep, dark secret of their fates. Unfortunately for her, she does just that – by becoming her husband’s fourth victim.
With such an unsettling libretto (by fellow Hungarian Bela Belazs) staring him in the face, it’s not surprising that Bartok responded with a score of exotic yet surpassing brutality in both his use of clashing dissonances and the employment of crashing percussion. The result is a musical language both idiosyncratic and accessible. I hesitate to write that it flows from the start to the finish of its hour-long length, but it does boast a degree of inevitability that thrusts it from beginning to end.
Music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin led the Philadelphia Orchestra and vocal soloists John Relyea and Michelle DeYoung with consummate artistry in Verizon Hall. He drew highly colored playing from the Philadelphians and explosive singing from baritone Relyea in the role of Bluebeard. Unfortunately, mezzo DeYoung’s singing as the Duke’s fourth wife was often so poorly projected that one heard barely a peep out of her; and when one did hear that peep, it was a pale imitation of dramatic operatic singing.
Nezet-Seguin unconvincingly prefaced the Bartok with selections from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” Far better choices would have been fellow Hungarian Zoltan Kodaly’s “Hary Janos” Suite and Concerto for Orchestra, both favorites of the late former music director and Hungarian-born Eugene Ormandy.
Composed in 2005, Adams’ “Dr. Atomic” recounts the development of the atomic bomb by physicists Robert Oppenheimer (the title character) and Edward Teller and the excruciating moral dilemma they faced. Confronted with the real possibility that either Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan might beat the United States to the punch and invent the atomic bomb first, the American government pushed ahead with its development. The trajectory continued in spite of the inability of even the most brilliant scientists to accurately gauge its potentially devastating power sufficient to destroy everyone and everything on earth.
To one degree or another, even the generals experienced at least a fleeting moment of hesitation. As for Oppenheimer and Teller, they both verged on nervous breakdowns. Neither could deny the reality that all of us are responsible for all of us. They both realized that once so fatal a weapon is developed, it’s bound to be used. And so it was in 1945 to bring Imperial Japan to its knees and usher in the nuclear era in which we all still live.
Adams responded to Peter Sellars’ serviceable libretto with a score that seethes with instrumental tension and sings with soaring beauty. The large orchestral ensemble very nearly conveys the drama on its own while Adams’ vocal and choral writing charts the terrifying emotional, personal, spiritual and moral journey each character essays.
Conductor Timothy Myers elicited electrifying playing from the Curtis Symphony Orchestra in the pit at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater and deeply moving performances from every member of his cast. Most notable were those given by Jonathan McCullough as Oppenheimer, Tyler Zimmerman as Teller, Evan LeRoy Johnson as physicist Robert Wilson, and Vartan Gabrielian as General Leslie Groves. R.B. Schlather’s stage direction, however, was distracting to the point of idiotic.
Oksana Maslova of Germantown will dance the part of Medora in the Pennsylvania Ballet’s production of “Le Corsaire” in the Academy of Music March 9-19. For ticket information, call 215-893-1955 or visit www.paballet.org.
Contact NOTEWORTHY at Michaelfirstname.lastname@example.org.