by Michael Caruso
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, marked the final Sunday after Epiphany and the last Sunday before the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday with a Choral Evensong Feb 11. The principal bill of fare conducted by parish music director Zachary Fritsch-Hemenway was Herbert Howells’ setting of the traditional “Magnificat” and “Nunc Dimittis” from his “Collegium Regale” Evening Service, but Frank Boles’ anthem at the Offertory, “Christ Upon the Mountain Peak,” stole the show.
Fritsch-Hemenway’s choral forces were the combined singers of the parish’s adult and treble choirs. The afternoon’s guest organist was Michael Smith, music director of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Whitemarsh. All in all, it was a stellar roster of musicians that performed this especially memorable Evensong.
Considering its placement at the end of Epiphany and the beginning of Lent, it’s not surprising that the appointed readings of the day were of marked importance. From the Old Testament Second Book of Kings was heard the recounting of the Prophet Elijah’s ascent into Heaven in the fiery chariot sent by God to welcome him home. From the New Testament Gospel of St. Mark was heard the telling of Christ’s “Transfiguration,” during which Jesus is joined by Moses and Elijah and witnessed by Saints Peter, John and James.
In both the “Magnificat” and the “Nunc Dimittis,” Howells has the choir accompanied fully and dramatically by the organ. The women in unison open the former against the organ in somber modal harmonies. As the words of the Blessed Virgin Mary continue her praise of God’s boundless generosity and mercy, the men join the women’s singing as the organ accompaniment grows stronger and fuller measure by measure. Howells’ setting of the closing “Glory be to the Father” is ablaze with choral and organ splendor. The sopranos and trebles sang especially well Sunday afternoon, achieving brilliance without shrillness.
Howells set the opening lines of the “Nunc Dimittis” for solo male voice, here sung splendidly and expressively by Tyler Tehada. When the rest of the men and then the whole choir joined him, the singing was full-throated and resonant. Smith provided expert accompaniment in both works.
The overwhelmingly pleasant surprise of the evening, however, was Boles’ “Christ Upon the Mountain Peak.” It’s straightforward, energetic, unfussy in its setting of its English text, and it catches the marvel of Christ’s “Transfiguration” with matchless precision. Plus it was sung with style, panache and passion.
LIVING MUSICAL HISTORY
Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla made her conducting debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra in a pair of concerts heard in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall Feb. 9 and 10. But for this pianist, the major point of interest was the appearance of her soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488. The 94-year-old Menahem Pressler gave new meaning to the notion that great music will keep you young by opening an aural portal into how music was interpreted several generations ago.
In a brief conversation prior to the start of Saturday evening’s concert, Pressler recalled making his Orchestra and American debut in 1947 under the baton of Eugene Ormandy, the Philadelphians’ music director for a glorious 44 years. He remembered having been stunned speechless by the beauty of an orchestral sound no other symphonic ensemble in the world had ever produced. He almost forgot to come in when it was time for the concerto soloist to play.
Every now and then, time can be kind to certain faithful servants in whatever field they offer their talents. Time has, indeed, been kind to Menahem Presser – and even kinder to those of us who heard him during these two performances in Philadelphia.
Of course, his digital technique is not the fluent marvel it was during the heyday of his years as pianist with the Beaux Arts Trio. But Mozart piano concerti don’t demand the pyrotechnical razzle-dazzle of a Liszt or Rachmaninoff concerto. It’s true that his tone is a tad less colorful than it once was. But his playing more closely evokes the sound of the keyboard instruments of Mozart’s 18th century epoch. And with an appropriately downsized ensemble, one felt that one was being given a golden opportunity to hear Mozart in a more “Mozartean” fashion.
And when it came to his single encore – a Chopin “Nocturne” – one truly felt the clock being turned back to a different view of this greatest of all composers for the piano. Rather than attempting to make Chopin sound like his flashy contemporary and friend, Franz Liszt, Pressler conjured up the atmosphere of the Parisian aristocratic salons in which Chopin exclusively performed.
With overlapping pedaling to produce a harmonic haze of delicate dissonances, a judicious use of “rubato” to make the tempo elastic rather than overbearing and a transparent feel for voicing to project Chopin’s melancholy melodies over their widely spaced accompaniments, Pressler’s playing created an aural connection with the artistry of such bygone pianists Artur Rubinstein, Ignace Jan Paderewski and Anton Rubinstein. He deserved the exuberant ovation his performances elicited.
After intermission, Grazinyte-Tyla led a fine rendition of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. Janai Brugger was her soprano soloist.
Chestnut Hill Maestro Cristian Macelaru will conduct the Orchestra Saturday, Feb. 17, at 8 p.m. in Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture No. 3, Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony and Wieniawski’s Second Violin Concerto with Joshua Bell as soloist.
‘WRITTEN ON SKIN’
Opera Philadelphia opened its production of George Benjamin and Martin Crimp’s “Written on Skin” Friday, Feb. 9, in the Academy of Music. The 2012 opera stands out among contemporary works for the musical stage as particularly repugnant regarding Crimp’s libretto and surprisingly impressive regarding the music Benjamin composed to delineate it.
In a nutshell, Crimp’s libretto deals with the flashback story of a wealthy landowner who dominates his wife to the point of abuse and who hires an artist to create an illuminated manuscript in the manner of the pre-printing press Middle Ages. Along the way to its gruesome finale, the landowner kills the artist (here called The Boy), cuts out his heart and then tricks his wife into eating it. Not surprisingly, when she discovers his cruel deception, she rebels and commits suicide in the only gesture with which she can free herself from his barbarian grip.
Not exactly the happy ending one might hope for. Unfortunately, despite its obvious attempts to connect itself with several serious topics coursing through contemporary society, Crimp’s libretto ultimately amounts to little more than fictitious junk.
Amazingly or not, Benjamin’s score is an evocative masterpiece when it comes to projecting the ugliness of Crimp’s libretto. There’s not a measure of beautiful music in it. Yet, considering the libretto, how could there be? The score’s instrumental writing is astringent in timbre and dissonant in tone. The vocal writing is angular and strident.
I suspect that even a person with perfect pitch and total aural memory would have a time and a half humming one of its non-tunes while strolling out of the Academy of Music. And yet, Benjamin’s music fulfills its job description: convincing the audience that life can be even more dreadful than you already imagined it could be. But, then again, hasn’t this last year in our national life proven that premise without the help of an opera?
So what’s the point? Beats me. Wouldn’t Opera Philadelphia be better serving its audiences by presenting splendid mountings of all those countless forgotten yet worthy operas by the likes of Handel, Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano and Cilea?
The cast includes soprano Lauren Snouffer as Agnes, the wife; baritone Mark Stone as the landowner, known as The Protector; and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo as The Boy. Corrado Rovaris conducted with convicted intensity.
“Written on Skin” continues in the Academy of Music through Feb. 18. Visit www.operaphila.org.
You can contact NOTEOWRTHY at Michael-caruso@comcast .net. To read more of NOTEWORTHY, visit www.chestnuthilllocal.com/Arts/Noteworthy.