by Michael Caruso
The Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Chestnut Hill, celebrated the official end of Christmastide on Epiphany (the arrival of the three wise men in Bethlehem at the birth of Christ) with a ceremony of Lessons and Carols Sunday, Jan. 4. Despite the immense amount of singing the parish’s choir had offered for the Christmas season, commencing with the start of Advent on the last Sunday of November, parish music director Erik Meyer and his choristers performed a program of scores both simple yet demanding with technical polish and interpretive intensity.
Meyer and his choir projected the sweet, romantic harmonies and elegant lines of Gustav Holst’s “Lullay my liking” through singing of exquisite clarity and transparent blend and balance. David Willcocks’ arrangement of “I saw three ships come sailing in” featured beautiful solo singing from treble members of the choir. The Latin text of Michael Praetorius’ “En natus est Emanuel” (Emmanuel is born) evoked the pre-Reformation era of the Catholic Church in England while Hector Berlioz’s “Thou must leave thy lowly dwelling” recalled the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. Both scores were sung with touching delicacy. The choral portion of the service was brought to a lovely close with Meyer’s own “The blessed Son of God.” The music’s sensitive and imaginative setting of the text was effortlessly delineated. And Meyer’s performances on St. Martin’s pipe organ of John Cook’s “Paen on ‘Divinum Mysterium’” to open the Evensong and Olivier Messiaen’s “Dieu Parmi Nous” to bring it to a close efficaciously set the mood at the start and rounded out the circle of its liturgy at its finish.
St. Martin’s will celebrate its next Choral Evensong Sunday, Feb. 1, at 5 p.m.
Former music director Christoph Eschenbach returned to the podium of the Philadelphia Orchestra to conduct a trio of concerts in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall, Jan. 8-10. I caught the Saturday evening performance and came away with a positive reaction to a musician whose five-year tenure at the helm of the Philadelphians is sometimes remembered as an unmitigated disaster while, in reality, there were both pluses and minuses to those years.
Although the program’s first half was dedicated to the music of Richard Strauss – the tone poem “Til Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks” and the “Horn Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major” with the orchestra’s principal horn Jennifer Montone as soloist – it was the rendition given Robert Schumann’s “Symphony No. 2 in C major,” heard after intermission, that proved itself the evening’s most revelatory interpretation.
Even as a concert pianist specializing in the Austro-Germanic repertoire of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, which was how he first came to fame, Eschenbach was never considered a player who elicited a gorgeous tone from the instrument. Rather, he was greatly admired for the textural transparency and structural clarity of his interpretations.
When he “moved up” from the piano bench to the podium, his conducting took on the same sonic attributes. He certainly wasn’t out to resurrect the famous “Philadelphia Sound” of previous music directors Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy. He wasn’t even out to emulate his immediate predecessor, Wolfgang Sawallisch, whose tonal personality did indeed recall the Ormandy sound in a slightly lighter version. But just as truly, Eschenbach never offered up anything nearly as stringent as the sound Riccardo Muti regularly elicited from the Philadelphians.
From the first note to the last of the Schumann Second Symphony, Eschenbach did what he only rarely did when he was music director; he encouraged the players to play freely and expressively. Rather than micromanage every division of every beat of every measure of the score, he communicated through precise but not overbearing gestures his interpretation of this masterpiece of early Romanticism.
The result was a performance that not only presented Schumann’s take on the classical symphony passed on to him from Haydn and Mozart through Beethoven and Schubert but that filled Verizon Hall with a tonal warmth few conductors produce and even fewer use to maximum interpretive effect.
The music of the first, second and fourth movements unfolded with both lyricism and intensity, with both intimacy and drama. If Eschenbach chose a slower tempo for the third movement than would have been mine, I will not criticize him for it because I understood what he was trying to accomplish – setting a mood of heavenly peace and tranquility amidst a terribly violent world – and I was able to hear the music in his heart and soul beyond the mere notes being played.
I wasn’t altogether looking forward to this particular concert, but I was wrong to worry. The Philadelphians played splendidly for Christoph Eschenbach, and I was grateful to hear them do so, as was the audience that nearly filled the hall and gave the returning maestro a resounding ovation.