by Michael Caruso

The Chestnut Hill-based Pennsylvania Girlchoir joined forces with its male counterpart, the Germantown-based Keystone State Boychoir, for a joint Christmas concert Sunday afternoon, Dec. 16, in the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square.\

Before an audience that packed the church’s Victorian Romanesque sanctuary, the two halves of Commonwealth Youthchoirs performed a varied yet complementary program of holiday favorites, separately and together, that showed both ensembles to be among the region’s finest choruses.

With music director Joseph Fitzmartin at the piano and associate music director Steven Fisher on the podium, the Boychoir sang first. In classical selections such as Purcell’s “Come, Ye Sons of Art,” four movements from Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols” and the Bach/Gounod “Ave Maria,” the boys sang with impeccable diction and a pure tonal quality.

There was an engaging rhythmic lilt to their singing, even in these classical works, which often require more precise rhythmic delineation than is needed in popular Christmas music. Then, in the popular numbers, the boys sang with an impressive tightness of ensemble that enabled their high spirits to soar over the foundation of technically solid singing. “Christmas Time is Here” and “Holly Jolly Christmas” received particularly winning renditions.

Although the Keystone State Boychoir does not produce the sound of the Anglican cathedral choirs of bygone legend — my personal favorite choral sound — it nonetheless offers a beautifully modulated tone that is effective in a broad variety of repertoire. And with Fitzmartin’s supportive accompaniment at the piano, the boys constitute one of the region’s finest vocal ensembles.

The Girlchoir’s repertoire leaned more in the direction of the classics. Under the direction of Vincent Metallo and Zerrin Agabigum Martin, the girls’ performances of Faure’s “Cantique de Jean Racine,” Handel’s “Let’s Imitate Her High Notes,” “No, di voi non vo’ fidarmi” and Ippolitov-Ivanov’s “Blagosloi, dushe moya, Ghospoda” were stellar. Their tone was full-bodied, not just at the top of their range but at the bottom as well.


For its final weekend of subscription concerts of 2012, the Philadelphia Orchestra and guest conductor Gianandrea Noseda played a program of music by Borodin, Elgar and Tchaikovsky. I caught the Saturday, Dec. 15, performance in Verizon Hall and came away mildly-satisfied but not much more than that.

The program’s major work was Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 3 in D major.” Along with the First and Second Symphonies — “Winter Dreams” and “Little Russian” — the romantic Russian’s early efforts in the classical symphonic form have always been regarded as the poor relatives of the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies.

And well they should. Whereas Nos. 4, 5 and 6 exhibit a triumphant mastery of developmental techniques, overall structure, stunning orchestration and peerless lyricism, Nos. 1, 2 and 3 reveal a composer struggling to deal with all of those aspects of composition. When you include in the discussion Tchaikovsky’s trio of magnificent ballet scores — “The Nutcracker,” “Swan Lake” and “The Sleeping Beauty — it’s no wonder that his first three symphonies rarely receive more than grudging respect. And should you take note of the well-deserved reverence afforded all four symphonies of Brahms, Tchaikovsky’s German contemporary and rival, you might wonder why any of the first three is ever programmed.

Perhaps because Tchaikovsky is a composer who remains one of the most popular of all classical musicians, whose music is known and loved by those who are not familiar with much classical music. The problem, however, is that a conductor must impose upon the score the structural concision and focused expression the music doesn’t contain within it, and then he must elicit playing from his orchestra of immaculate ensemble and sonic splendor if even the most convincing rendition is to succeed.

Neither occurred convincingly Saturday evening. Noseda’s interpretation was good but not good enough to overcome the Third Symphony’s flaws. The playing was attractive but insufficiently distinctive to cover the score’s weaknesses.