by Michael Caruso

Chestnut Hill was alive with the sounds of singing and instrumental playing last weekend. Piffaro, the Renaissance Band, performed “Es Ist Ein Ros: A German Renaissance Christmas” Saturday, Dec. 16, in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. The following Sunday afternoon at 5, Dec. 17, the same welcoming church played host to “The Crossing at Christmas” under the direction of the choir’s founder/artistic director Donald Nally. The choir previously presented the concert Friday evening, Dec, 15, in the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square to accommodate the demand for tickets.

Although the two programs were quite different on the surface – Piffaro harking back to the 16th & 17th centuries, The Crossing never venturing back beyond the 21st – there was a remarkable similarity in concept linking the two.

Piffaro’s roster of music, both vocal and instrumental, traced the Marian character of late Medieval and Renaissance celebrations of Advent directly into the intense focus on the Adoration of the Christ Child of Christmastide. While both distinct seasons emphasize the miraculous quality of Jesus’ virgin birth, the former trembles with anticipation while the latter exults with joy.

It was the Marian aspect of Advent – the unique place in the plan of salvation played by Jesus’ mother, the Virgin Mary – that was at the heart of “The Crossing at Christmas.” In particular, many of the texts of the 11 pieces touched on a mother’s loss of her son, such as Mary’s loss of Jesus to his earthly journey to the cross for the sake of the salvation of the world.

Piffaro artistic directors Joan Kimball and Bob Wiemken assembled a marvelously informative yet flexible program of music divided into seven narrative segments: Supplication and Proclamation; Mystery, Manger & Meditation; Praise & Rejoicing; the Christmas Story; an Instrumental Interlude; Declamation; and a Final Celebration. With a single intermission between the fourth and fifth sections, the concert moved smoothly from start to finish. And it delivered not merely a sonic retrospective of the music of Christmases past, but a priceless peek into the state of musical instruments at any given time.

As is often the case with Piffaro concerts, the listener had the chance to hear instruments whose days were truly numbered – those that fell out of favor as the Renaissance moved into the Baroque. But you also heard instruments at a moment of transition – those that eventually were transformed into the versions we know today.

Saturday’s concert was heard by an audience that packed every pew in Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church and that was treated to splendid performances by the Piffaro musicians plus the added attraction of the singing of soprano Jessica Beebe. Her voice is a marvel of expressive clarity and tonal warmth committed to the service of intense yet eloquent lyricism. Plus she displayed an uncanny ability to place her voice securely within the context of the instrumental complement accompanying her singing, thereby offering a seamless texture of voice and woodwind instruments.


For “The Crossing at Christmas,” Donald Nally assembled a roster of 11 contemporary choral works, including one commissioned world premiere, which traversed a pathway to interior enlightenment through the idiom of the most consistently accessible modern music I’ve ever encountered in more than four decades of concert reviewing. Given in memory of late chorus member Jeffrey Dinsmore, this year’s installment of “The Crossing at Christmas” was perhaps the choir’s most focused and affecting.

The commissioned world premiere, Michael Gilbertson’s “Born,” is set to a poem by Wislawa Szymborska and translated by Stanislaw Baranczak & Clara Cavanaugh. It is one of the most no-nonsense pieces of poetry detailing Mary’s giving birth of Jesus I know. And yet, through its total commitment to physical detail, it is also among the most evocative.

Stanzas such as “She herself pulled him/into the skin I know/bound him to the bones/that are hidden from me” couldn’t be more explicit in terms of accepting Christ’s actual birth as a human being. While another, “His movements/dodge and parry/the universal verdict,” couldn’t be more implicit regarding the Christian belief that Christ was born to save us from our sins by dying on the cross and then rising again on the third day. Gilbertson’s music suits his chosen text. The choral writing is flexible yet forceful, translucent yet overwhelming.

Other standouts on the program included Jonathan Varcoe’s “Lullay, lullay little child.” It’s as beautifully harmonized as any example of Renaissance polyphony from either Palestrina or Victoria. Nicholas Cline’s “She took his hands” moved the Christmas story of Jesus’ birth right into the world in which we all live. Robert Convery’s “Young Jesus Sweit” harkened back to medieval times through its use of a 16th century German text by Martin Luther and an Old English translation of it. And Toivo Yulev’s “Der Herr is mein getreuer Hirt” (The Lord is my faithful shepherd) conjures up a Gregorian chant setting of the 23rd Psalm.

Nally and his choristers performed this daunting program with unparalleled technical precision and heart-piercing emotional intensity. Not only does Nally have a knack for choosing and commissioning the finest examples of contemporary choral music, but he also has the conducting genius to make it all not just accessible on first hearing but unforgettable.

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