by Michael Caruso
With the help of two of its resident ensembles, the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill launched the local classical music season this past weekend. Lyric Fest presented “Pedals, Page-Turns, and Postludes: A View from the Bench” Friday evening, Sept. 22. Then on Saturday evening, Tempesta di Mare opened its season-long celebration of the music of Georg Philipp Telemann with a program entitled “The Faithful Music Master” that focused on his chamber music.
The center of gravity for Lyric Fest’s concert was Chestnut Hill pianist Laura Ward. Joined by East Falls mezzo-soprano Suzanne DuPlantis, soprano Jennifer Aylmer, tenor Jonas Hacker and baritone Randall Scarlata, co-director Ward oversaw a series of performances of art songs composed across the generations and in many different styles. Yet all placed the music at the service of the poetry that was its original fount of inspiration. She also adeptly explained the many tricks of the trade that enable a pianist to successfully support the singer she is accompanying.
The musicians got off to a memorable start with three lieder from the early 19th century by Franz Schubert. Although the Viennese master wasn’t the first to compose art songs accompanied by a piano, he was the first to invest the slight form with a universe’s worth of revelation. He was also the first to employ the piano as not merely an accompanying instrument but as a sonic collaborator providing the vocalist with a plethora of colors and timbres upon and against which to place his or her singing. In our time, we may not think of the piano imitating the whirring of a spinning wheel as any big thing, but it was in Schubert’s day when he did it for the first time.
With a deft command over music history, Ward looked ahead into the 20th and 21st centuries to similar effects accomplished by modern composers such as Benjamin Britten and Benjamin C.S. Boyle, the latter writing a song specifically for co-director DuPlantis and Lyric Fest’s 15th anniversary season.
Ward and her singers ventured into the world of piano reductions of orchestral scores by Kurt Weill, Jules Massenet and Gaetano Donizetti. They led us into different times and places through songs by Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, Raymond Lustig and Sergei Rachmaninoff, and then added thrusts of rhythm in songs by Willie Nelson and Francisco Ernani Costa Braga. Best of all, they closed out the evening with four songs by Hugo Wolf, the late 19th century master who compressed worlds of emotions into miniature songs of Wagnerian depth.
Perhaps the concert’s most touching moment was an addition to the printed program: a rendition by Scarlata and Ward of Carrie Jacobs Bond’s “I Love You Truly.” Bond, America’s first successful female song composer, was the original owner of the newly restored and acquired 1896 Steinway & Sons grand piano now adorning the main sanctuary of Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church and on which Ward performed the recital. The duo evoked its sentiment without succumbing to its sentimentality.
Although the operatic selections didn’t work particularly well – they almost never do outside the context of the libretto and minus their orchestral contingent – all the other selections were sung with a telling combination of intimacy and intensity. All four vocalists projected the words of their songs with personal conviction and sang with consummate vocalism. Ward proffered a level of pianistic collaboration that left piano playing behind in favor of musical artistry of the highest order.
It’s often remarked that Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) was far more successful and acclaimed during his lifetime than was his German compatriot Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Outside of the United Kingdom, he was even more famous than George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), who was born in Germany, trained in Italy and settled in England.
The decline of his reputation, however, was almost immediate upon his death. While his industry was lauded for having composed more than 3,000 scores, his music was faulted for what was deemed a decided lack of quality. While certain scores by Handel – “Messiah,” the “Water Music” and “Music for the Royal Fireworks,” for instance — have never disappeared from the concert stage, and while Handel’s operas and all of Bach’s substantial repertoire have received major revivals, Telemann’s canon has not been so fortunate.
And so it has fallen to Tempesta di Mare to make a stab at restoring Telemann to the upper echelon of Baroque composers. Saturday night’s program featured three quartets, one trio, one concerto and one cantata. Even if the exemplary renditions these scores received didn’t quite push the memory of so many other great works by Bach, Handel and Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) completely out of mind, they did spur a well-deserved re-evaluation of Telemann’s place in music history.
Tempesta’s chamber ensemble was comprised of co-director Gwyn Roberts on flute & recorder, violinists Emlyn Ngai & Rebecca Harris, Lisa Terry on cello & viola da gamba, co-director and theorbo player Richard Stone, and harpsichordist Adam Pearl. Together they caught the courtly elegance, exquisite phrasing, lively rhythms and tart timbres of the five instrumental works and joined mezzo-soprano Meg Bragle for the evening’s largest piece, the Cantata: “Ei nun, mein liebster Jesu” (Oh now, my dearest Jesus). It received a sterling interpretation.