Eric Anderson is retiring as director of Settlement Music School’s Germantown Branch after seven years in the position. (Photo by Ken Weiner)

by Michael Caruso

Close on the heels of the departure of Zachary Hemenway from his position as music director of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill, another major Northwest Philadelphia musical institution is losing its helmsman. After seven years as the branch director of Settlement Music School’s Germantown Branch, Eric Anderson of Glenside is retiring. Anderson’s stint at the Germantown Branch followed 24 years as branch director at the historic Mary Louise Curtis (MLC) Branch at 416 Queen St. in the Queen Village section of Central Philadelphia.

Anderson recalled that he had first visited Settlement in 1983 when he attended a conference that was meeting in Philadelphia. At the time, Anderson was working at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio.

“I wrote home to my wife, Rae Ann (now the director of Settlement Music School’s Gleeksman-Kohn Children’s Choir),” he said, “and told her what a wonderful place Philadelphia was and that I hoped to someday work and live here.”

In a surprising twist of good luck, that’s precisely what transpired. “In the summer of 1986,” Anderson remembered, “my job at Capital University changed dramatically. I had been the director of its community music school. The school was moving in a different direction, and my responsibilities would have involved other things.”

Anderson’s application for a post at the Hart College of Music of the University of Hartford didn’t pan out, but after being interviewed by then Settlement executive director Robert Capanna, he was offered the position of branch director at MLC. Describing his reaction to the school as something akin to love at first sight, he took up his post in the fall of 1987, a job he held until 2011.

“When Marsha Hogan announced she was planning to retire as branch director at the Willow Grove Branch, Patricia Manley and I began talking about the possibility of her moving from her position as branch director at Germantown over to Willow Grove and me moving from MLC to Germantown. I had been downtown for 24 years and thought it was time for a change. Plus the drive from Glenside to Queen Village was getting to be a bit much, and Germantown was much closer to Glenside. We spoke with Bob (Capanna) about the idea, and he agreed.

“You see, although I wanted to leave the MCL Branch, I didn’t want to leave Settlement. This place is magical because it’s committed to music education for everyone. You can have kids from one background making music side by side with kids who come from a completely different background. We have at both MLC and Germantown rich kids making music next to kids who aren’t. It makes music education a common cause for everyone who wants to learn how to make music.

At the Germantown Branch, we have families from Chestnut Hill involved in music with families from some of the poorest sections of North Philadelphia. And kids from the city playing next to kids from the suburbs. That commitment is rooted in Settlement’s past, going all the way back to 1908 when the school was founded, and it continues to this day through financial aid and scholarships.”

Recalling his seven years at the Germantown Branch, Anderson spoke of the renovations to the physical plant as his greatest challenge. “First,” he said, “we had to re-establish a working relationship with the neighbors. We had to bring them onboard with the new landscaping, the expansion of the parking lot and the redesign of the building’s entrance. Then there was the replacing of all the windows and the renovations of the interior spaces. Now the building is one of the most beautiful jewels in Germantown.

“But what I most enjoyed here in Germantown was having the time to walk through the halls and listen to the students playing and to talk with every member of the faculty every day. MLC is so big and there are so many nonmusical tasks at hand, you don’t have the time to do that each and every day. But here in Germantown, that’s what I’ve enjoyed most of all.

“It was the perfect time in 2011 to come to Germantown,” he pointed out, “and now it’s the perfect time for me to retire. I’ve spent 31 years at Settlement – half of my life! I guess I could have chosen another profession and made much more money at it, but to what purpose? I’m proud of this institution, and I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to be a part of it. Regrets? None! I guess I’m just a happy guy.”

After lauding Anderson’s masterful accomplishments at both the MLC and Germantown Branches, Settlement chief executive officer Helen Eaton said of him, “Eric is also known for his incredible sense of humor. There is nothing quite so entertaining as seeing the world through Eric’s eyes. He is known for his attentiveness to students and faculty, his deep knowledge of the school and its history and his love of watching students perform.”

In the interest of full disclosure, I have been a member of the piano faculty at Settlement Music School since 1986.

MONTH OF MODERNS

Donald Nally and The Crossing launched their “Month of Moderns” festival of three choral concerts Saturday, June 9, in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. Entitled “a house,” the opening concert drew an audience that filled the church’s main sanctuary and offered enthusiastic support for stellar performances of six scores of daunting contemporary music.

The program opened with Peteris Vasks’ “The Fruit of Silence.” A quiet delineation of “silence” through “service,” it’s voiced in a style of flowing polyphony that recalls the masterpieces of the High Renaissance composed by the likes of Palestrina, Victoria, Tallis and Byrd. Harmonies are lush, dissonances are gentle and smoothly resolved, balances between the vocal parts are delicately set, phrases are exquisitely shaped, and the ranges for each vocal line are placed within the context of the overall texture in a seamless flow of lyricism.

“The Fruit of Silence” received a stellar rendition under Nally’s masterful hands. For his “a house,” David Lang wrote both the words and music. He took the text from a proverb dealing with the material and spiritual ingredients in building a house, extracted only their most seminal words, and then set them to music in the pointillism style for the first half and then in a more declamatory fashion for the second.

I found the initial portion of the score mesmerizing: the lower male voices insinuating the building blocks of individual words while the other sections maintained a tonal background of minimalistic harmonies. The second half of the score, however, struck me as too strident for the purpose at hand: the construction of not just a house but of a home.

Alex Berko’s “Lincoln” follows a similar tack: dismember a longer text throughout the main body of the score and then reassemble it at the end to sum up the meaning of its words. Considering the tragic trajectory of Abraham Lincoln’s life as one not-so-long march to its all-consuming destiny, I found this “Lincoln” a tad disappointing. The whole was less, not greater, than the sum of its parts in spite of a splendid reading by The Crossing under Nally’s direction.

Following a brief pause, Nally and The Crossing returned to a work that they commissioned in 2010 and that has become one of their staples: Lang’s “statement to the court.” Based on testimony given by American Socialist Eugene Debs at a trial during which he was found guilty of sedition, Lang’s music is forceful to the point of strident and unbending to the level of a fanaticism perfectly suited to Debs’ social and political views. I hasten to point out that virtually every object of Debs’ impassioned condemnation remains in place in American society and cries out for the reform for which he was willing to go prison. Once again, the work received a splendid interpretation.

Ellis Ludwig-Leone’s “Who What Where When Why” offers a checklist of questions answered in an unending flow of overlapping counterpoint, beautifully sung Saturday evening. Lang’s “just (after song of songs)” unwisely tears apart the flowing poetry of one of the Old Testament’s most evocative books to the point of turning poetry into random observations couched in repetitive musical phrases that leave behind their natural expiration date by a good three-quarters of their over-extended length.

The second concert of “Month of Moderns” is set for Sunday, June 17, 4 p.m., in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. Visit www.crossingchoir.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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