by Michael Caruso

Crisitian Macelaru mounted the Philadelphia Orchestra’s podium for the second weekend in a row Feb 22-24. The Chestnut Hill resident led a program that included the local premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s “Low Brass Concerto” plus music by Zoltan Kodaly, Beethoven and Brahms.

Higdon, who is both an alumna and faculty member at the Curtis Institute of Music, composed her “Low Brass Concerto” on commission by both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra. In a perfect proof that “it’s a small world,” the score’s premiere was given in Chicago under the CSO’s music director Riccardo Muti, who of course was the Philadelphians’ music director from 1980 until 1992.

Set in one movement for two trombones, bass trombone and tuba, the “Low Brass Concerto” makes effective references to a host of Higdon’s predecessors. Higdon’s harmonic language falls securely within the expanded traditions of Paul Hindemith, Bela Bartok, Kodaly, Leonard Bernstein and even Richard Wagner. The music maintains a splendid sense of ongoing thematic development and an infectious feel of engaging rhythms that propel it from start to finish, even during its beautifully euphonious lyrical passages.

Trombonists Nitzan Haroz & Matthew Vaughn, bass trombonist Blair Bollinger and tuba player Carol Jantsch worked as a finely honed vocal quartet Saturday evening in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. Macelaru marshaled the vast orchestral forces Higdon employs with superb precision, coursing exhilaration and a sensitive ear for allowing his soloists to project their individual contributions to the overall texture. Higdon, in attendance, and the players received an impassioned ovation that prompted an encore from the soloists: Aram Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance.”

Macelaru opened the concert with a stylish rendition of Kodaly’s “Dances of Marosszek.” During the 44 years the Hungarian-born Eugene Ormandy was the Orchestra’s music director, the music of fellow-Hungarian Kodaly and his Hungarian compatriot Bartok played a large portion of the ensemble’s repertoire of 20th century music. Once Muti took over, however, these scores mostly fell out of favor, with the exception of Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra” and the occasional piano concerto.

A longtime fan of the music of both Kodaly and Bartok, I couldn’t have been happier than to hear the “Dances of Marosszek” given so idiomatic a reading as the Romanian-born Macelaru and the Philadelphians gave it Saturday evening. During a conversation with him backstage after the concert, I asked the maestro if he had ever conducted Kodaly’s “Concerto for Orchestra.” Happily, he replied, “Yes” – and added that he would love to program it here if the opportunity presented itself.

After intermission, Macelaru conducted the orchestra in a spritely performance of Beethoven’s effervescent Symphony No. 8 in F major, Opus 93. The strings, which had projected so swarthy and highly colored a tone in the Kodaly, now offered a clarity worthy of a fine period instruments ensemble paired with a glistening sheen reminiscent of the Ormandy years. Woodwind solos were beautifully highlighted from within the overall orchestral texture yet remained securely placed inside the Bonn master’s peerless developmental road map.

Macelaru brought the concert to a rousing finale with Brahms’ “Hungarian Dances” Nos. 2, 4, 8, 16 & 10. They are among the finest examples of Brahms’ orchestration and they conjured up, aurally and visually, 1930s’ Garbo movies straight from the Metro archives like “Mata Hari,” “Anna Karenina” and “Ninotchka.” Oh, those gypsy melodies and modal harmonies! You could almost taste the garlic.

On hand to cheer the maestro on Saturday evening and to celebrate with him after the concert was a sizable contingent from the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, his congregation. The church’s own musical establishment will perform Brahms’ “Ein Deutches Requiem” Sunday, March 4, 4 p.m.

Music director Daniel Spratlan will conduct the Gallery Choir and soloists baritone Jackson Williams and soprano Rebecca Siler. Ken Lovett and Laura Ward will perform the composer’s own reduction of the orchestral score for piano four-hands. The performance will take place in the church’s main sanctuary. Admission is free, and a reception will follow. Visit www.chestnuthillpres.org or call 215-247-8855 for more information.

CHORAL EVENSONG

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, marked the second Sunday in Lent with a Choral Evensong conducted by parish music director Zach Hemenway, accompanied by organist Michael Smith, and sung by the church’s Adult Choir.

The choral offerings were by William Mundy, Philip Radcliffe, James Turle, Thomas Attwood Walmisley and Herbert Howells.

Smith, music director at St. Thomas Episcopal, Whitemarsh, opened the service with his own solo organ transcription of Eugene Bozza’s “Aria,” originally set for saxophone and piano. It set the appropriately somber tone of the season by stylistic references to both Bach and Albinoni, here heard via the diapason and string stops of St. Paul’s magnificent Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ.

Hemenway and the choir performed Mundy’s lovely “O Lord, the maker of all things” from the back of the church, projecting warmly blended four-part harmony upwards toward the high altar as the choristers processed forward. Turle’s Anglican chant setting of Psalm 74 was a dark reminder of the penitential nature of Lent, beautifully sung with a heavily shaded tone.

Walmisley’s Evening Service in D minor provided the settings of the “Magnificat” and “Nunc Dimittis.” The former features a dramatic dialogue between the men and women of the chorus while the latter glows with the fading light of the end of a rainy day. Both were sung with supple sensitivity, unaffected yet crisp diction and clearly articulated phrasing. Howells’ justly loved “Like as the hart” was the affecting anthem at the Offertory, and I would be remiss in not mentioning Radcliffe’s exquisite setting of the “Our Father” during the prayers.

St. Paul’s Church will host its next “Five Fridays” March 2 at 7:30 p.m. The recital features mezzo Chrystal Williams accompanied by pianist Jose Menendez. Visit www.FiveFridays.org.

The Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Chestnut Hill, will mark the third Sunday in Lent, March 4, 4:30 p.m. with Choral Evensong. Soprano Krys Cooper and mezzo Alyson Harvey will sing parts of Rossini’s “Stabat Mater” prior to the start of the liturgy. Visit www.stmartinec.org.

‘SWAN LAKE’

The Pennsylvania Ballet will present Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” March 8-18 in the Academy of Music. This production was choreographed by the company’s artistic director, Angel Corella, based on the choreography of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov for the 1895 revival by the Imperial Ballet at the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg.

I had the pleasure of seeing ballet master Charles Askegard direct a rehearsal with couples Aleksey Babayee & So Jung Shin and Aaron Anker & Alex Hughes accompanied at the piano by Nina Siniakova. They were working on a slow “pas de deux” from “Swan Lake,” and I found myself amazed to realize how much more technically difficult it is to dance slowly than to dance quickly.

Like most non-dancers, I assumed that faster means harder, much as it mostly means that when playing the piano, the instrument I teach at Settlement Music School. Although it’s true that a slow movement of a Beethoven sonata, for instance, is most assuredly more difficult to interpret, it’s rarely more difficult to play.

With classical ballet, however, I couldn’t help but notice and subsequently appreciate the incredible muscular control both dancers in a slow “pas de deux” need to sustain the gestures and movements and to pair them with their partner. Nor could I fail to see and again appreciate the meticulous attention to detail required of the ballet master in charge of a rehearsal of such a “pas de deux.” By the end of the session, I was blown away by how beautifully it all was coming together.

For more information, visit www.paballet.org. You can contact NOTEWORTHY at Michael-caruso@comcast.net. To read more of NOTEWORTHY, visit www.chestnuthilllocal.com/Arts/Noteworthy.

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