By Michael Caruso

Chestnut Hill was the heart and soul of the local choral universe the weekend of March 17-19. The Academy of Vocal Arts brought its “Jubilate!” celebration of sacred vocal and choral music taken from the grand repertoire to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Friday evening, March 17; then, Sunday afternoon, March 19, Donald Nally led The Crossing in the world premiere performance of Lansing McLoskey’s “Zealot Canticles” at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. Both churches proved to be the perfect venue for each program, and both drew audiences that were impressive for their enthusiasm and appreciation.

“Jubilate!” is the brainchild of AVA’s president and artistic director, K. James McDowell of East Falls. McDowell realized that with the demise of many classical music programs at churches across the country, many of the young singers coming to AVA for their post-graduate studies before launching a professional singing career might do so without any knowledge of or experience in the classical sacred repertoire. Other than a few choruses and arias from Handel’s “Messiah” that they may have learned “by ear” more than by legitimate study, they would be ill equipped to audition for opportunities to solo with major orchestras performing these masterpieces.

And so, “Jubilate!” was conceived to provide just such a training opportunity for the budding professionals at AVA, the nation’s only full-scholarship school devoted solely to the art of classical singing. Along the way, local audiences would be given the chance to hear scores that were once regularly performed in cathedrals and major churches throughout the country but that are now only rarely encountered in “live” performances. There would even be a better than average chance that one might hear an almost forgotten gem.

Just such an instance occurred Friday evening. Ferdinand Hummel’s “Alleluia” had originally been scheduled toward the end of the concert’s second half. In a stroke of sheer genius, music director and conductor David Anthony Lofton moved the little-known work to the close of the program’s first half – a spot considered highly honored going all the way back to the music halls and vaudeville. If that number wasn’t top of the line and didn’t receive a sterling rendition, a sizable portion of the audience might not return for the second half.

Hummel’s “Alleluia” is definitely a “top of the line” score. Its setting for orchestra and tenor solo of excerpts drawn from the Book of Psalms ending with the title word covers the gamut of emotions from soothing intimacy to stirring grandeur, from delicate whispers to leonine roars. Its orchestration is both luxuriant and martial, according to its text, and its placement of the solo tenor line ranges from quiet chamber music-like phrases to soaring declamations.

Lofton proved himself the perfect partner for tenor soloist, Matthew White, just as White proved himself the perfect soloist for Lofton and Hummel. Lofton elicited superb playing from the AVA Opera Orchestra. He carefully gauged the music’s series of intermediate climaxes to lead unstoppably to its thrilling conclusion on “Alleluia.” And he brilliantly moved the tempo along at the end to enable his soloist to hold that final note while the orchestra surged beneath him.

This was my first encounter with Matthew White in a major solo situation. It was well worth the wait. He, too, husbanded his resources like an inspired commanding general, shaping phrases with telling appreciation for the sounds of the words and meanings, and then placing them securely within the roadmap of the music’s overall structure.

By the time he reached the score’s consummation on that final “Alleluia,” he was at full throttle. His voice rang out from within the instrumental texture with clarion brilliance, filling St. Paul’s neo-gothic space without pushing the tone beyond its natural beauty. And that final high note on “Alleluia”? White hit it securely on pitch and held it for nearly an eternity. And his reward? A roar of approval worthy of the Roman Coliseum.

Other performances of note that graced the concert were those given by tenor Jonas Hacker in Purcell’s “Lord, what is man?” mezzo Alejandra Gomez in the “Laudamus te” from Mozart’s Mass in C minor, tenor John Myers in “Total Eclipse” from Handel’s “Samson,” soprano Meryl Dominguez in Lili Boulanger’s “Pie Jesus,” baritone Christopher Kenney in “Easter” from Vaughan Williams’ “Five Mystical Songs,” and tenor Mackenzie Gotcher in Gounod’s “O Divine Redemptor.”

THE CROSSING

Lansing McLoskey took as his starting point for “Zealot Canticles” poetry of Wole Soyinka, written while he was held prisoner for his human rights activities in his native Nigeria at the time of the Biafran Civil War. These verses are unquestionably among the most heart-wrenching and unsettling texts ever used as the basis of a piece of choral music. Their explication of humanity’s inhumanity and their crying out for “never again” rank high in the annals of poetic responses to numerous 20th century atrocities.

McLoskey’s success in setting them in a manner both true to their inherent horror and efficacious in the music’s ability to communicate that horror marks the score as a major triumph. The ability of Donald Nally and The Crossing, along with five instrumentalists, to effectively navigate their way through the music’s thicket of daunting dissonances, extended ranges, startling dynamics and evocative timbres is singular even in the rarefied world of choirs dedicated to contemporary music. And that Chestnut Hill offered a supportive audience on a Sunday afternoon goes a long way to explaining why so many of the region’s leading ensembles love performing here.

Among Sunday afternoon’s standouts were baritone Elijah Blaisdell, who delivered many of Soyinka’s most revelatory lines, and soprano Rebecca Siler and mezzo Maren Montalbano, both regulars at Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church. The most seminal standout, however, was Donald Nally. The Crossing sang so stunningly and movingly that one went away from the concert convinced that each and every one of us has an integral role to play in protecting the rights of each and every other one of us.

MUSIC ON THE HILL

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church will present the Astral Trio as part of its “Five Fridays” March 31 at 7:30 p.m. Piffaro will present “Sacred Winds: Cathedral Music for a Spanish Band” Saturday, April 1, at 7:30 p.m. in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. And the Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields will present a Lenten Choral Evensong Sunday, April 2, at 5 p.m.

Contact NOTEWORTHY at Michael-caruso@comcast.net.

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