By Michael Caruso

Chestnut Hill’s two Episcopal parishes plus the Roman Catholic Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter & Paul presented choral performances that marked the final week of the Lenten season leading up to Palm Sunday. The Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields hosted a Lenten Choral Evensong Sunday afternoon, April 2; St. Paul’s Church offered Choral Meditations on the Passion of Christ the following Sunday afternoon, April 9; and the Cathedral Basilica hosted the University of Pennsylvania’s Ancient Voices in a program of Renaissance choral and instrumental polyphony Saturday evening, April 8. All three reassured that the standard of choral singing in Philadelphia remains as high as ever, if not even higher.

The distinguishing characteristic of St. Martin’s Choral Evensong was the use of music director Erik Meyer’s choral setting of the traditional late afternoon Anglican liturgy. Thomas Cranmer, the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, fused the Roman Church’s Latin liturgies of Vespers and Compline to form Evensong in the 16th century. The use of choral music was added in the 19 century, and ever since, adaptations of the service have been made to accommodate the changing seasons of the liturgical year.

Meyer not only set the two principal texts – the “Magnificat” and “Nunc Dimittis” – for choir but also the preliminary “Preces” and the “Responses” toward the end to produce a series of individual choral pieces that form a seamless whole.

Meyer’s Lutheran upbringing was evident in the stalwart character of both the “Preces” and the “Reponses,” while his settings of the “Magnificat” and “Nunc Dimittis” fall more easily into the Anglican tradition of smoothly flowing counterpoint.

Fluttering flutes and reeds introduced the women of the choir in the “Magnificat.” The men then joined in canonic imitation of the women’s melodic line. The singing was characterized by excellent ensemble. Entrances and cutoffs were crisply rendered, and dynamics were effectively shaped from soft to loud.

The entrance pattern of women followed by the men heard in the “Magnificat” was reversed in the “Nunc Dimittis.” As fits its more contemplative text, the music is more often than not cast in the minor mode until it regains its strength for the closing “Glory be,” recalling the final measures of the “Magnificat.” Once again, the singing was wholly admirable in balance and blend.

William Dawson’s “Soon I will be done with the troubles of the world” was engagingly sung at the Offertory. Meyer opened the afternoon’s music at the organ with William Grant Still’s “Elegy” for the Prelude, its dark, brooding textures and harmonies setting the somber tone of the season. For the Postlude, he played the “Con moto maestoso” movement from Felix Mendelssohn’s Organ Sonata III, its counterpoint looking back to Bach and its chromatic harmonies looking ahead to Mahler.

AT ST. PAUL’S

With organ scholar Joseph Russell at the church’s Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ, music director Zachary Fritsch-Hemenway led the parish’s Adult Choir in a daunting program of music composed to mark the Christian Holy Week beginning on Palm Sunday.

The afternoon’s opening work was Cesar Franck’s “Priere.” A virtual symphonic tone poem for the solo organ, Russell gave it a compelling reading. He shaped its flowing development with an expert hand to maximize the sense of each minor climax building toward the inevitable conclusion that resolved the thicket of counterpoint.

The choir then sang Frank Ferko’s unaccompanied “Motet for Passion Sunday” from the back of the church. Its austere harmonies and delicate dissonances were projected with both elegance and eloquence.

The three stanzas of Edward Cuthbert Bairstow’s “The Lamentation” resemble the traditional style of Anglican setting of the Psalms, but here with a more stately tone and a more liberal use of dissonance. Each of the three varied delineations of the text “Jerusalem! Jerusalem!” was memorably sung, with each receiving a different emotional color.

Leo Nester caught the feel of a traditional spiritual in his “Saw Ye My Savior” without stooping to mere imitation. The music coursed with gentle nostalgia conjured up through pastel dissonances and delicate resolutions. It was sung with focused intensity.

One of the most fascinating musical choices of the afternoon was the hymn “To Mock Your Reign, O Dearest Lord.” The third tune from the hymnal was used – the very theme by Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis that his musical descendant Ralph Vaughan Williams used for his justly acclaimed “Fantasy on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.”

Two other Renaissance works were performed by the choir: Orlando de Lassus’ “Tristis est anima mea” (“My soul is sorrowful even unto death”) and Antonio Lotti’s “Crucifixus” (“He was crucified”). Both were sung in their original Latin with an immaculate and idiomatic feel for the language of the ancient Church of Rome. Both composers employed tortured dissonances to convey Christ’s suffering on the cross to stunning effect, their polyphony coming together and then separating sparingly yet tellingly. Both scores were sung superbly. It’s a pity the three medieval plainsong selections weren’t also sung in Latin rather than in an English translation that simply didn’t fit the melodic contours of the Gregorian chants.

Harold Friedell’s “Jesus, So Lowly” brought the afternoon to a powerful conclusion. Under Fritsch-Hemenway’s firm yet sensitive hand, the music’s sweeping emotional devastation was given a shattering rendition during which not a note was out of place in order to deliver every musical gesture intact.

ANCIENT VOICES

William Parberry conducted the University of Pennsylvania’s Ancient Voices in concert Saturday, April 8, in the Roman Catholic Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter & Paul. The 21-member choir essayed a program neatly divided in half: prior to intermission, the choristers sang sacred choral music from the Renaissance and early Baroque; after the interval, they sang secular scores of the same periods.

Although the singing after intermission was enjoyable, it was the set of performances during the concert’s first half that were the most memorable and proved the choir’s mettle as being admirably refined.

Three masterpieces opened the program: John Sheppard’s “In manus tuas” (“Into your hands”) and Tomas Luis de Victoria’s “Vere languores” (“Truly, our failings”) and “Pueri Hebraeorum” (“The Hebrew Children”). While Victoria spent his career comfortably in devoutly Catholic Spain, Sheppard lived during the tumultuous 16 century in England when King Henry VIII separated from Rome for the sake of a divorce, King Edward VI veered toward Lutheranism, Queen Mary Tudor returned the English Church to full communion with Rome, and Queen Elizabeth I firmly established the reformed Church of England. Whereas Victoria’s music glows triumphantly, Sheppard’s scores are often anguished in a mood of introspection revelatory of persecution.

Under Parberry’s inspired direction, Ancient Voices gave all three works renditions of technical polish and interpretive conviction. Tuning, blend and balance were exquisitely maintained with tempos majestically spacious.

Claudio Monteverdi is often credited with having invented the Baroque style in Italy while Orlando Gibbons established the style of Protestant sacred choral music under Elizabeth’s reign. Medieval and Renaissance polyphony was dramatically simplified to project the text more clearly, yet vocal textures remained full-bodied and expressive. Once again, Parberry led his choristers in exemplary readings.

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