The Pennsylvania Ballet opened is production of “Le Corsaire” last weekend. (Photo by Alexander Iziliaev)

by Michael Caruso

The Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Chestnut Hill, celebrated the first Sunday in Lent with a Choral Evensong March 5. Parish music director Erik Meyer at the pipe organ with his choir performed a roster of music that included Herbert Howells’ Organ Psalm Prelude #1, the Preces, Responses, “Magnificat” and “Nunc Dimittis” of Parker Kitterman, Howell’s “Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks” at the Offertory, and Louis Vierne’s Allegro from Symphony II for Organ at the Postlude.

Kitterman, music director of Old Christ Episcopal Church, Old City, is one of Philadelphia’s leading church music composers. He has written choral settings of several of the liturgies of the Episcopal Church, the American branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

As is often the case for music composed for Anglican Choral Evensong, medieval plainsong (first written down by Pope Gregory the Great in Rome around 600 A.D.) is at its foundation. Even when direct quotes from the chant books aren’t employed, their modal harmonies and long lyrical lines are utilized to evoke their mood of mysticism and sense of timeless spirituality.

Kitterman’s particular gift is his ability to invest the classicism of Gregorian chant with the vitality of contemporary American music, both classical and jazz. The English-language “Magnificat” is direct and festive, with joyous shifts of harmonies and vibrant injections of rhythm. The “Nunc Dimittis,” on the other hand, delineates the more somber, reflective character of the text without ever become lugubrious. Although there were a few moments of sagging pitch in the “Nunc Dimittis,” the “Magnificat” was sung with engaging energy.

Howells’ “Like as the hart” received a rendition perfectly in keeping with its inward, reflective mood. Dissonances always resolve convincingly in the score but never outward in an openly expressive manner. Rather, they resolve inwardly to keep the focus on the penitential nature of the text, which speaks of the soul’s need for God’s help in times of trouble. Meyer led the choir with a delicate touch for blend and balance and a firm hand for ensemble and tuning.

He was no less effective at the organ console in both the Prelude and Postlude. He presented the dark, contemplative nature of the Howells and cleanly projected the knotty counterpoint of the Vierne.

‘LE CORSAIRE’

The Pennsylvania Ballet opened is production of “Le Corsaire” this past weekend in the Academy of Music. I caught the Friday evening, March 10, performance and came away mightily impressed with the dancing and the production surrounding and supporting it if not quite so taken by the choreography and its delineation of the story ballet’s narrative.

Set to a score by Adolphe Adam and premiered in Paris in 1856, most modern mountings are based on the productions at the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg that were choreographed and directed by Marius Petipa and later by Lev Ivanov. Pennsylvania Ballet’s version features choreography by the company’s artistic director, Angel Corella, based on his Russian predecessors. Even when considered within the context of ballet librettos not meant to stand the light of evaluation on their own, Corella’s choreographic narrative missed some crucial opportunities for drama during its overall length and for a satisfactory denouement at its conclusion.

The rescue of Medora from the Pasha’s harem and the nefarious wiles of the trader Lankendem by Conrad, the pirate captain, did not receive a convincing resolution at the ballet’s final scene. Since the Pasha is a doddering old man, it falls to Lankendem to be the villain pitted against Conrad, the hero. And yet, Corella’s choreography fails to deliver a classic death-defying battle between good and evil, even though the company boasts in these two roles two of the most dashing dancers ever to grace its roster. I was expecting something akin to Errol Flynn as Robin Hood sword-fighting Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisbourne in Warner Bros.’ 1938 “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” I was disappointed.

What the production does offer is dazzling costumes, shimmering sets and a sumptuous rendition of Adam’s score by the Ballet Orchestra under Beatrice Jona Affron’s commanding baton. It also offers a bevy of splendid performances by a host of dancers assembled by Corella in his three seasons as artistic director.

Ukraine-born Germantown resident Oksana Maslova made a lovely Medora Friday night. She was both fragile and resilient theatrically, and she danced with pristine precision. Sterling Baca was an inspiring Conrad, dancing with unbounded energy as he effectively communicated the character of a very good-hearted pirate, indeed.

Arian Molina Soca was so charismatic as Lankendem that he dangerously made wickedness seem not just beguiling but downright preferable. He was also the only member of the cast to wholeheartedly embrace the mime that is an integral part of any 19th century story ballet. He seemed to relish every theatrical gesture almost as much as he enjoyed dancing his daunting choreography.

Daysei Orriente was brilliant as Gulnare, Medora’s friend; Peter Weil was a sinuous Ali, Conrad’s faithful servant; and Albert Gordon handled the tricky part of Birbanto, first friend and then foe of Conrad.

“Le Corsaire” continues March 17-19 in the Academy of Music with afternoon and evening performances. Visit www.paballet.org.

MUSICAL HILL

The Academy of Vocal Arts will bring its acclaimed “Jubilate!” concert of sacred choral and vocal music to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, Friday, March 17, 7:30 p.m. Call 215-735-1685 or visit www.avaopera.org. The Crossing will perform the world premiere of Lansing McClosky’s “Zealot Canticles” Sunday, March 19, 4 p.m. in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. Visit www.crossingchoir.com.

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