Erik Meyer, music director of the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, helped along with the Choir at St. Martin’s to dedicate the new organ at Christ Church. (Photo by Joe Routon)

by Michael Caruso

Old Christ Church (Episcopal), located at 2nd & Market Sts. in Old City, dedicated its new C.B. Fisk pipe organ with an organ recital and Choral Evensong Sunday, May 6. Joining forces with parish music director Parker Kitterman and his choristers were Erik Meyer, music director at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Chestnut Hill, and the parish’s Adult Choir.

Numbering nearly 50 singers, the combined choir sang Meyer’s own settings of the “Magnificat” and “Nunc Dimittis,” settings of the “Preces” and the “Responses” by Peter Christian, a member of Christ Church’s choir, the commissioned world premiere of “Psalm 150” by Pamela Decker, and Benjamin Britten’s “Rejoice in the Lamb” at the Offertory. Prior to the start of Choral Evensong, which drew a congregation that packed the historic church, Edward Landin played a recital featuring music by Craig Phillips, Leo Sowerby, Carson Cooman, Gerre Hancock and Pamela Decker.

Replacing the aging Curtis organ at Christ Church has been a goal of Parker Kitterman since his arrival as parish music director in 2010. The motivating force behind turning that dream into a reality was Esther M. Wideman, for whom the organ is named. Originally from Oklahoma, Wideman’s organ studies included time at the Peabody Conservatory of Music of Johns Hopkins University, my alma mater. She was the organist at Arch Street Presbyterian Church in Center City for 40 years. The new pipe organ at Christ Church will assuredly sustain the legacy of her love for the pipe organ for generations to come.

The Wideman Memorial Organ, built by C.B. Fisk as its Opus 150, features three manuals – Great, Chaire and Swell – and Pedals. It has a mechanical (tracker) key action, meaning that there is a direct physical link between pressing down the keys and the opening of the individual pipes. Fisk maintained the historic case of the organ and added a new Chaire case on the gallery railing.

Landin’s recital revealed the instrument to be characterized by a flawless blend of clarity and resonance. Its bevy of registrations convincingly recreates the sounds of a full symphony orchestra yet maintains a seamless blend of tones, timbres and textures. Under Landin’s hands and feet, the organ effortlessly filled the Church’s main sanctuary without bursting its walls or muddying the sound.

It re-establishes Christ Church as one of the most desirable venues for concerts requiring a pipe organ, a prominence in the local musical community its illustrious history deserves. It was, after all, in Christ Church at the time of the American Revolution that local Anglicans declared their own independence from the Church of England to found the first autonomous province of what eventually became the worldwide Anglican Communion. Christ Church is set to become the more Protestant ballast with the Anglo-Catholic tradition of St. Mark’s, Locust Street, where music director Robert McCormick led his professional choristers in a stunning rendition of Tomas Luis de Victoria’s “Missa Ascendus in altum” Sunday morning, May 13.

Meyer’s “Magnificat” is a substantial work for chorus and organ that scrupulously sets the English-language text of the Virgin Mary’s joy at having been chosen to bear the Christ. The music sustains an unbroken line of narrative and development from its opening phrase, “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” to its closing at the “Glory be to the Father.”

Through exemplary variety of texture and rhythmic vitality, its energy never flags. Meyer achieves a subtler mood in the “Nunc Dimittis,” beautifully expressing St. Simeon’s gratitude at having been given the chance to see the Messiah before completing his life on earth. In both works, Meyer conducted the combined Choirs of St. Martin-in-the-Fields and Christ Church with authority and sensitivity.

Kitterman was the conductor in the Britten, linking its individual movements with a clear eye on its triumphant finale on the word “Hallelujah” while showing due value for every minute detail.

After accompanying the final hymn of the service, Meyer gave a spectacular rendition to the Finale of Charles-Marie Widor’s “Symphony No. 6 for Organ.”

PUCCINI MASTERPIECE

The Philadelphia Orchestra gave the first of three performances of Giacomo Puccini’s opera, “Tosca,” in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall Saturday evening, May 12. Music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin led a host of soloists, choristers and the Philadelphians in a semi-staged rendition of one of the three unquestioned masterpieces by Puccini for an enthusiastic audience that packed the hall.

The other two are “La Boheme” and “Madama Butterfly.” One can only hope that they, too, will benefit from Nezet-Seguin’s close relationship with New York City’s Metropolitan Opera and will be performed here in Philadelphia. Our music director becomes theirs, as well, this coming September.

The Greek-American soprano, Maria Callas, once described “Tosca” as “that shabby little shocker.” While there is a touch of the tawdry about the libretto Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica (based on the play by Victorien Sardou) gave Puccini, it’s nonetheless the opera in his canon that most closely adheres to the classical unities of action, time and place.

Whereas both “La Boheme” and “Madama Butterfly” are spread out to some degree regarding at least two of the three, “Tosca” has only one narrative, takes place within the confines of a single day and is set within the boundaries of the “Eternal City” of Rome, at that time (1800) the capital of the Papal States ruled temporally by the Pope. It’s focused and concise, and one can actually visit the settings of its three acts in Rome today.

Nezet-Seguin chose leisurely tempos for both the first and third acts of “Tosca,” pushing ahead dramatically for only the second. This enabled the Maestro to elicit truly gorgeous playing from the Philadelphia Orchestra, but it also elongated the length of the performance and came close to breaking the narrative line of Puccini’s expertly constructed arch.

Although Verizon Hall was never meant for staging of any kind, James Alexander’s design and direction made effective use of the added space in front of the “conductor’s circle” behind the stage on the first tier. The action was, by necessity, limited, yet it managed to visually convey the claustrophobic atmosphere in which the opera’s three main characters are forced to play out the final hours of their earthly lives.

Soprano Jennifer Rowley replaced the indisposed Sonya Yoncheva and gave an excellent vocal and theatrical performance in the title role of a celebrated singer. Her voices lacks that golden Italianate glow of past divas such as Renata Tebaldi, but she infused her singing with visceral focus and acted with the desperation of a needlessly jealous woman whose actions precipitate the story’s tragic denouement.

Tenor Yusif Eyvazov’s voice was the most ringing of the cast members. He caught the heedless heroism of a revolutionary partisan during the Napoleonic Wars and sang with towering power beautifully aligned with lyrical expressivity.

Baritone Ambrogio Maestri was disappointing as Baron Scarpia, the feared and debauched head of Rome’s police. His singing was underpowered, and his mobility was limited even by the constricted standards of a semi-staged production. Treble Cameron Bowden, of the Philadelphia Boys Choir, sang splendidly as the shepherd boy announcing the dawn in the third act.

“Tosca” will be performed again Wednesday, May 16, and Saturday, May 19.

BALANCHINE’S ‘JEWELS’

Pennsylvania Ballet closed out its 2017-18 season Sunday afternoon in the Academy of Music with George Balanchine’s “Jewels.” The performance also marked another milestone: the retirement after 25 years with the company of soloist James Ihde.

Yet another milestone was achieved in connection with Ihde’s retirement: the longest “thank you” standing ovation for a single performer in the Academy of Music in the 42 seasons of my own reviewing performances there. And Ihde deserved every one of the 15 minutes it lasted for every current dancer and staff member to express their respect, gratitude and affection.

The three movements of “Jewels” are “Emeralds,” “Rubies” and “Diamonds.” Through the music of Gabriel Faure, the first evokes French Romanticism; via Igor Stravinsky’s “Capriccio for Piano & Orchestra,” the second delineates American Jazz; and with the help of four of the five movements of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony, the third conjures up the glitter and glamour of Czarist Russia.

Ihde, paired with Lillian DiPiazza, comprised the principal couple in the finale. Here he flawlessly displayed the characteristics that have both stamped his dancing and explained his unimaginable longevity in a profession that usually lasts half his years. Every move was cleanly executed, each piece of footwork was precisely rendered, every line was elegantly extended, every leap was perfectly timed with the music, beginning and ending on the beat, and never once did he fail to offer expressive yet solid support for his partner.

Perhaps because it’s my birthstone, but my favorite movement of “Jewels” has always been “Rubies.” I’ve always adored the music of Stravinsky in general and the “Capriccio” in particular, and I’m convinced that it’s the music that inspired Balanchine to embrace Jazz as the national musical idiom of his adopted country. The choreography bristles and bounces, bumps and grinds, and seems to be having a “helluva good time.” Martha Koeneman was the excellent piano soloist.

Germantown’s Oksana Maslova and Ian Hussey were the principal couple Sunday afternoon. She displayed breathtaking agility, blazing speed and uncanny flexibility while Hussey seemed to be channeling Gene Kelly in “An American in Paris” – all to delightful effect.

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

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