by Michael Caruso
Donald Nally and The Crossing performed Philadelphia composer Kile Smith’s “The Consolation of Apollo” and David Lang’s “The Little Match Girl Passion” Saturday, Jan. 3, in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. The performance given “Consolation” was the fourth in a series of “world premieres” that began Oct. 10 in Princeton, New Jersey.
“Consolation” was commissioned by Nally and The Crossing as a companion piece for Lang’s score. “The Little Match Girl Passion” won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008. Smith’s score was sponsored by bass Eric Owens, a West Mt. Airy native and alumnus of Settlement Music School and the Curtis Institute of Music. Owens has forged an operatic career that has taken him to all of the world’s leading opera companies.
The “Apollo” in Smith’s score is the Apollo 8 and the 1968 Christmas Eve broadcast from the crew of the space ship, the first to leave earth’s orbit and circle the moon. Divided into seven movements with the choir accompanied by drum and bells, “Consolation” casts the traditional cantata form (of a choral piece in several sections) in a contemporary harmonic idiom that is nonetheless accessible on first hearing because the choral writing is lyrical, even at its most dramatic and dissonant. Certain movements are theatrical in their tonal gestures while others affect an ethereal quality that give the voices the sound of truly coming to earth from outer space.
As is always the case with the singing of The Crossing (soon to be Philadelphia’s only fully professional choir with the imminent demise of the Philadelphia Singers), it was as close to perfection as imaginable. Despite daunting spans of range and dynamics, the choir’s singing was so thoroughly under control that Nally and his singers were free to concentrate solely on delivering Smith’s musical interpretation of the astronauts’ message to those of us on earth — full of profound appreciation for our planet’s sublime beauty. I hasten to point out the immeasurable contributions of the acoustics of Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church’s main sanctuary — clear yet resonant. The Crossing never sounds better than it does in Chestnut Hill.
“…Match Girl Passion” is a more dramatic work, reminiscent of the post-Impressionist Pointillism style of painting in the layout of its musical substance. Short phrases are layered one upon the next, sometimes overlapping yet at other times with a short gap in between one and the following. At times the ear is nearly overwhelmed with a plethora of voices that seem to come in a thick cloud detailing the tragic story of the little match girl as told by Hans Christian Andersen. At others, the overall choral texture is pierced by what sounds like the “cantus firmus” of Gregorian chant that remained at the heart of Medieval and Renaissance polyphony.
Once again, the singing was impeccable in all its technical components and powerful in its emotional delineation of its tale of suffering transformed into heavenly triumph. And once again, the superbly supportive acoustics of Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church contributed its reverberant clarity to the performance.
When pianist Peter Donohue joins Valentin Radu and the Ama Deus Ensemble for the local premiere of Aaron Copland’s Piano Concerto Friday, Jan. 16, 8 p.m., in the Kimmel Center, the British virtuoso will be playing the Bosendorfer Imperial Grand Piano provided by Germantown’s Cunningham Piano Company. The concert, entitled “Awesome Americans: Gershwin, Copland & Williams,” will take place in Perelman Theater.
“The program will be a stupendous classical/pops concert,” Radu explained, “especially appealing to music lovers who crave bravura works written for the piano. Peter Donohue will return for his third appearance with the Ama Deus Ensemble – and he will have his work cut out for him! From the genius of George Gershwin, he’ll play both the ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and the ‘Concerto in F.’ The orchestra will also play his ‘An American in Paris.’ As though this weren’t enough, and thanks to Peter’s strong recommendation, we have programmed the rarely performed, jazz-inspired Piano Concerto by Aaron Copland.”
Radu pointed out that the Copland was composed in 1926 at the urging of Serge Koussevitsky, the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Unfortunately, it did not receive a warm reception from the critics at its premiere in January of 1927, both in Boston and later in New York City. Since the publisher has never loaned out the score to any local ensemble, it’s probably safe to assume that Copland’s Piano Concerto has never been performed by either the Philadelphia Orchestra or the Philly Pops.
The program will also include selections from three of the rousing film scores composed by John Williams: “The Harry Potter Suite,” the “Raiders’ March” and “The Empire Strikes Back Medley.”