by Michael Caruso
My final pair of concerts of the old year featured contrasting yet complementary choral programs that highlighted the exemplary singing of two of the region’s most celebrated choirs. Donald Nally led his chamber choir, The Crossing, in contemporary music for the holiday season Friday evening, Dec. 21, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill. Then on Sunday afternoon, Dec.23, the Philadelphia Singers Chorale joined the Philadelphia Orchestra and four vocal soloists for their annual performance of Handel’s oratorio, “Messiah,” in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall.
The Crossing’s program got underway with the choir singing John Tavener’s “O do not move: a miniature icon of the Nativity” from the back of St. Paul’s Church. Its angular melodies and open harmonies, reminiscent of medieval sacred choral music, evocatively set the tone for the entire evening. Eriks Esenvalds’ “Stars” followed in a rendition that caught the profundity of its unhurried tempo, the beauty of its widely spaced textures and the elegance of its lyricism.
At the singing of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s “Canticum Mariae Virginis,” the choir moved forward to the front of the church. The music’s densely voiced harmonies made comprehending its Latin text difficult on first hearing, but its technique of a chant rising up out of those harmonies was sonically effective. Bo Holten’s “First Snow” was a welcome return to traditional major/minor tonality with discernible harmonic progressions and resolutions. Tavener’s “Mother and Child” brought the concert’s first half to a close with his characteristic haunting melodies, delicate harmonies and smoothly rounded rhythms.
Organist Scott Dettra performed his own “Improvisation on ‘Divinum mysterium,’” a wild work of oversized, booming timbral effects. Although the first portion of the title of Thomas Jennefelt’s “Music for a Big Church: for Tranquility” implies another loud score, it’s the second half of that title that reveals its character. It offers a shimmering haze of delicate dissonances that almost float in the air as they approach your ear.
The program’s oldest work was “Chorale Prelude on ‘Silent Night,’ from Die Natali” by West Chester native Samuel Barber, who both graduated from and taught at the Curtis Institute of Music on Rittenhouse Square. The composer made the transcription for solo organ himself, and Dettra played it beautifully.
Sunday afternoon’s performance of “Messiah” brought together two great local musical traditions. In the 1950s, Eugene Ormandy joined his Philadelphia Orchestra with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to record “Messiah” for Columbia Masterworks, now Sony Classics. Their single album of highlights from the oratorio is the orchestra’s best-selling LP of all time, clocking in at well over 100,000 units, which is more than all the orchestra’s CDs sold under Riccardo Muti’s baton. In subsequent seasons, Ormandy’s associate conductor, William Smith, led annual performances of “Messiah” in the Academy of Music, often with the Temple University Choir. It was, of course, not a particularly “authentic” version of “Messiah” – rather something of a blend between Mozart’s re-scoring of the work and Wagner’s “Parsifal” – but it was very popular with local audiences.
When Michael Korn founded the Philadelphia Singers two decades later, he performed a different version of “Messiah” each year with pared-down chorus and orchestra at Christmas time, recalling the fact that Handel changed the internal make-up of the oratorio each time he conducted the piece. These performances became a signature of Korn’s celebrated tenure as the Singers’ artistic director and were instantaneous sell-outs.
The orchestra had more success when the two ensembles joined forces for “Messiah” by guaranteeing an excellently trained choir to sing the oratorio’s famous choruses. The Singers, on the other hand, lost a level of prominence because they were now performing under the orchestra’s banner rather than under their own. Local audiences also lost out because Korn’s decision to schedule a different version of the score every year was abandoned by the orchestra’s management.
All the same, Sunday afternoon’s rendition was a triumph from start to finish. Guest conductor Paul Goodwin chose appropriately lively tempi, elicited authentically clear and bright textures and invested all the singing and playing with Handel’s high sense of operatic drama. Soprano Karina Gauvin sang with airy eloquence; mezzo Diana Moore projected deeply felt pathos, and tenor John Tessier sang with stentorian clarity.