by Michael Caruso

The Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Chestnut Hill, took a leading role ushering in the Advent/Christmas season for the residents of Philadelphia’s most beautiful neighborhood. The historic church hosted Vox Renaissance Consort’s “A Renaissance Noel” Friday night, Nov. 30. It then celebrated the First Sunday in Advent with a Procession and Service of Lessons & Carols Dec. 2. Both events were heard in what is arguably the region’s most pristine example of the Gothic Revival.

St. Martin’s music director, Eric Meyer, led the church’s Chancel Choir Sunday evening in a daunting roster of mostly unaccompanied choral works in between readings taken from both the Old and New Testaments. The evening’s most telling interpretation was that given its most sublime work: William Byrd’s “Ave verum Corpus” (Hail True Body). Although Queen Elizabeth I had officially established the Church of England as an independent reformed body by the time of Byrd’s life in the second half of the 16th century, she permitted him to remain faithful to the Roman Catholic Church and compose music for its liturgies. Such a piece of music is his Latin “Ave verum Corpus.” St. Martin’s Chancel Choir under Meyer’s direction sang Byrd’s music superbly in pitch, balance and ensemble.

Also at St. Martin’s Romanian-born Valentin Radu led the period-clad singers and players of Vox Renaissance Consort in a varied program of holiday choral and instrumental selections Friday evening. With but one exception, the “Renaissance Noel” concert was performed with panache and polish.

Radu and the Consort were at their most impressive in the program’s finest scores. Lovely renditions were given William Byrd’s “Lullaby, My Sweet Little Baby” and Tomas Luis Victoria’s “O Regnum caeli – Natus est nobis.” There were problems, however, in the two selections by Claudio Monteverdi. Both the “Ave Maris Stella” and the “Magnificat a sei voci” are taken from the seminal Italian composer’s “Vespro della Beata Vergine” from 1610. In this mighty score, Monteverdi rounded out the highly polyphonic style of Renaissance sacred choral music and ushered in the more dramatic fashion of Baroque music, characterized by startling changes of tempo, texture and mood. The singing and playing in the “Ave Maris Stella” were a trifle unsteady, and there were major breakdowns in ensemble during the “Magnificat,” with the tenors altogether missing some important entrances.


With “A Renaissance Noel” behind him, Radu will conduct the Ama Deus Ensemble in a performance of Handel’s “Messiah” 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8, in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill. “If there is one piece of classical music that says, ‘This is Christmastime,’ it would be George Frideric Handel’s ‘Messiah!’” said Radu.

The Romanian-born conductor explained that he had formed his opinion of “Messiah” while growing up in Romania during its communist dictatorship. “Religious works were banned from public performance,” he said, “but I am not alone in this belief. I simply cannot go through December without performing ‘Messiah,’ and this December, I will conduct the Ama Deus Ensemble a total of six times in two weeks.”

“I thoroughly enjoy performing in St. Paul’s Church. The gorgeous, ornate woodwork helps produce a beautiful, burnished sound that also makes every note come across with crispness. These excellent acoustics add greatly to the experiences of both the audience and the performers.”

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Donald Runnicles guest-conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra last weekend in a trio of concerts heard in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. I caught the Saturday night performance and came away mildly disappointed in the renditions given both Beethoven’s “First Piano Concerto” and a suite of orchestral highlights from Wagner’s “The Ring of Nibelung.”

Lars Vogt was the soloist in the Beethoven, and his rendition lacked a distinctive interpretive point of view other than playing technically accurately. He imposed on the audience a self-indulgently long cadenza in the concerto’s first movement that seemed to take an eternity to complete – all to no substantive avail. With the memory and recordings of such giants as Rubenstein, Serkin, Fleisher and Brendel so readily available, is mediocrity really acceptable?

In assembling a five-movement suite from the four operas that comprise Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, Runnicles was following in the footsteps of Leopold Stokowski, the Philadelphians’ legendary maestro who was appointed music director a century ago. Runnicles fell somewhat short of the daunting standard of Stokowski and his successor, Eugene Ormandy, Saturday night. While the playing was good, it never rose to the level of “fabulous” because he failed to offer the shimmering textures that form the basis of Wagner’s counterpoint. It was a splendid opportunity sadly missed.