by Michael Caruso
The Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Chestnut Hill, celebrated Choral Evensong Sunday, Feb. 4, with its choir singing the world premiere of Erik Meyer’s Evening Service. Despite the inclement weather and the lure of a pre-Super Bowl party, the event drew a large congregation that heard a distinctive and vibrant addition to the repertoire of Anglican Choral Evensong.
The two principal movements of Choral Evensong are the “Magnificat” and the “Nunc Dimittis.” The former is a setting from the Gospel of St. Luke of the words spoken by the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, at her “Visitation” to St. Elizabeth, her kinswoman and the mother of St. John the Baptist. The latter is the setting of the words of St. Simeon upon meeting the infant Jesus at the time of his “Presentation” in the Temple in Jerusalem.
Meyer used the traditional English translations of the two texts as found in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. In the “Magnificat,” he avoided the obvious exuberance for “My soul doth magnify the Lord” in favor of a more tartly flavored delineation. His setting of “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace” was even darker, as he evoked the haunting holiness of music sung in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, where the event of the “Nunc Dimittis” took place. Both works display an inspired command of English language tone painting expressed through a smoothly voiced series of harmonic progressions that lead the listener to a convincing and complementary pair of narratives. Both were sung beautifully.
The text of the “Nunc Dimittis” is the central scriptural reading for the “Feast of the Presentation” known as “Candlemas” for the candles used in medieval times. It was celebrated with a High Choral Mass at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Center City Philadelphia Friday, Feb. 2, where I had the pleasure of hearing the choir singing William Byrd’s “Mass for Five Voices” Sunday morning, Feb. 4. Under music director Robert McCormick’s direction, the professional choristers gave this High English Renaissance masterpiece a splendid reading – the first I’ve ever heard within the context of the liturgy for which it was composed.
Erik Meyer, soprano Krys Cooper and mezzo Alyson Harvey will present a program of duets and solos by Schubert, Brahms, Copland and more Saturday, Feb. 10, 3 p.m. A free will offering will benefit St. Martin’s Music Fund. Please call 215-247-7466 for more information.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, continued its series of “Five Fridays” recitals Feb. 2 with flutist Annie Wu and pianist Feng Niu. The program chosen by the two Astral Artists protégés focused on French or French-flavored works in its first half and music originally based on song or opera after intermission.
Eldin Burton’s Sonatina for Flute & Piano is one of the few works the American pianist/composer left us. Sweetly divided into three movements, it references the music of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Wu and Niu gave it an elegant reading Friday evening. Henri Dutilleux’s Sonatine for Flute & Piano is one of his earlier works and also rests reliably within the horizons of Debussy and Ravel. The young duo played it with style.
Karl Lenski’s arrangement for solo flute & piano of Debussy’s landmark “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” did not fare so well. Commissioned and premiered by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes with Vaslav Nijinsky in the title role, Debussy’s score is a masterpiece of sensual tone painting. There’s no way a piano can possibly evoke the tints and shades of Debussy’s modal orchestration, and there’s no way a single flute can replicate the many varied woodwind solos of the original. Wu and Niu tried, but they failed.
The program’s second half offered settings of Goethe’s “Mignon Poems,” originally intended to be sung but here played by Wu accompanied by Niu. The composers included were Beethoven, Schumann, Schubert, Wolf and Tchaikovsky. Although the flute lacks the color of an oboe or the flexibility of a clarinet, Wu phrased the melodic lines with sensitivity, and Niu accompanied her securely.
Former Philadelphia Orchestra music director Christoph Eschenbach returned to the ensemble’s podium this past weekend to conduct three concerts in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall Feb. 1-3. His chose his program with an eye to his interpretive strengths – the Austro-Germanic symphonic tradition – and presided over one of the finest performances of a repertoire staple I’ve ever encountered in concert.
That staple was none other than Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Opus 67. A score whose opening four notes have come to define classical music for two centuries of audiences, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony remains the quintessential challenge for any conductor to live up to the demands of the score.
Looking hale and hearty, trim and tailored, Eschenbach dove into that opening motif with a no-nonsense approach that characterized his interpretation straight through to the resounding C-major triads with which the Symphony triumphantly concludes. One watched and felt the Maestro count both the notes and the rests to propel the music of the first movement from start to finish. He established transparent textures to open up Beethoven’s shimmering contrapuntal development of the movement’s principal themes and launched the Bonn master’s melodic manipulations forward via muscular rhythms.
He maintained those clear textures into the second movement so that the numerous woodwind solos – including a beauty by Mt. Airy principal bassoonist Daniel Matsukawa – shone out through the score’s masterful string writing. Eschenbach projected Beethoven’s furious fugal writing in the third movement with exemplary precision and then brought the Symphony to a blazing finale with its transition from the minor to the major mode like the blaze of the noonday sun coming out from behind the clouds.
Throughout the Fifth Symphony’s rendition, Eschenbach elicited magnificent playing from the Orchestra. The overall symphonic sound was built upon secure sectional playing that was the result of extraordinary playing from each individual musician onstage. The players kept their eyes on the Maestro as they kept their ears attuned to each other’s playing to produce a compelling reading of what many consider the greatest symphony ever composed. Eschenbach and the Philadelphians received a well-deserved standing ovation from the sold-out audience.
Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla makes her Orchestra conducting debut Feb. 8-10 in a program that features Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 and Mahler’s Symphony No. 4.
Lyric Fest continues its “Biography in Music” series with a focus on the music of Claude Debussy. The ensemble, founded and directed by mezzo Suzanne DuPlantis of East Falls and pianist Laura Ward of Chestnut Hill, will present a musical biography of the groundbreaking French Impressionist Saturday, Feb. 10, 4 p.m., in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, and Sunday, Feb. 11, 3 p.m., in the Academy of Vocal Arts, 1920 Spruce St., in Center City. For more information, visit www.lyricfest.org.