by Michael Caruso
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, hosted a Choral Evensong Sunday, Jan. 25, that was preceded by a solo organ recital featuring James Roman. The recital was part of the parish’s series of performances to raise money for the Ann Stookey Fund for Music at St. Paul’s Church. Its principal goal is to help maintain St. Paul’s magnificent Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ.
Roman, a recent graduate of Westminster Choir College and a current graduate student there, opened his program with J.S. Bach’s “Passacaglia in C minor.” He chose a single, quiet stop to announce the bass line upon which the entire piece is built, and then added one registration upon the next in a clearly conceived order that projected Bach’s incredible sense of musical architecture with structural security and sonic splendor.
Along the way, he showcased the Aeolian-Skinner’s dazzling array of tonal possibilities without ever transgressing the authentic historical character of the German Baroque instruments Bach played and for which he composed. Roman brought the entire work to a stunning fugal finale.
The recital continued with the Chorale-Prelude on “Seelnbrautigam” by Robert Elmore, the longtime organist at Tenth Presbyterian Church in center city. A work of angular melodies and prickly harmonies, Roman played it lovingly.
I was eager to hear Roman play Percy Whitlock’s Scherzetto from his “Sonatina in C minor,” as I had heard and been impressed earlier in the day by his “Fideles” from “Four Extemporizations” and “Paen” played by Bernard Kunkel at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church just off Logan Square along the Ben Franklin Parkway. The Scherzetto is a quirky and playful piece of music, and Roman performed it with engaging spirit and delicate registrations.
He then brought his program to a scintillating conclusion with “Carillon” from Marcel Dupre’s “Sept Pieces.” It’s a work that calls upon the full panoply of stops on a romantic/symphonic pipe organ like the Aeolian-Skinner at St. Paul’s Church. It’s an instrument with few peers in Greater Philadelphia – perhaps only the 1914 Austin at St. Clement’s Church, where Peter Richard Conte presides – and no superiors. Roman did both the music and the organ complete justice and then some.
In most Choral Evensongs, it’s the anthem at the Offertory that’s the most impressive score of the service. Not this time, however. Herbert Brewer’s settings of the “Magnificat” and the “Nunc Dimittis” from his “Evening Service in D” were not just excellent examples of liturgical music but splendid works of sacred choral music, period.
Both were rendered with the level of impassioned expertise with which many of us have come to know as the normal standard from the Choir of St. Paul’s Church under the direction of its music director, Zach Hemenway.
Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra continued their three-week celebration of the music of St. Petersburg, Russia, with a pair of concerts Jan. 22 and 23 in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. The program featured Leopold Stokowski’s arrangement of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Prelude in C-sharp minor,” the North American premiere of Anthony Turnage’s “Piano Concerto” and Rachmaninoff’s “Second Symphony.” Temple University alumnus Marc-Andre Hamelin was the soloist in the Turnage.
It was a strangely constructed roster of pieces whose overall mission was difficult to decipher within the context of celebrating Russian music and the Orchestra’s close relationship with it. Turnage is English, and his Concerto displayed not one whit of stylistic connection with Russian music, either Romantic or contemporary. Considering its lack of discernible musical worth on its own terms, its inclusion on the program was perplexing.
Although Stokowski (the Orchestra’s music director from 1912-1936) worked closely with Rachmaninoff for the world premiere of his “Third Symphony” and recorded his First and Second Piano Concerti plus the “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” with the composer as soloist with the Philadelphians, his orchestration of the Piano Prelude sounds like neither the piano version nor anything Rachmaninoff ever wrote for an orchestra.
Wouldn’t it have made more sense for Hamelin to play either the “First Piano Concerto” or the “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini?” The Concerto was the composer’s first published work while the Rhapsody was Rachmaninoff’s third to the last composition, followed only by the “Third Symphony” and the “Symphonic Dances,” the latter having been dedicated to the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy, the ensemble’s music director from 1936 until 1980. That would have served tradition, the composer, the piano soloist, the Orchestra and its audiences far more meaningfully.
Fortunately for everyone concerned, Nezet-Seguin led a thrilling rendition of the “Second Symphony.” Through choices of fast tempi and energetic rhythms, and a tad less of the “Philadelphia Sound” of Stokowski and Ormandy than I prefer, he triumphed over the score’s verbosity and kept the flow of its development intact while opening up its melancholy lyricism, lush harmonies and shimmering orchestration. And the Philadelphians played superbly for their maestro, as they always do.
FUTURE CONCERTS: Nezet-Seguin will conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra in Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony,” Shostakovich’s “Second Piano Concerto” (with soloist Kirill Gerstein) and his Suite from “The Gadfly” Jan. 28, 29 and 31 at 8 p.m. and 30 at 2 p.m. in Verizon Hall.