by Michael Caruso

Piffaro, Philadelphia’s world acclaimed Renaissance Band, will present a concert Saturday, March 14, at 8 p.m. in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. The program is entitled “At the Court of Ferrara” and will bring listeners back to the late 15th century and the court Duke Ercole I d’Este, one of the most prominent patrons of the arts during the Italian Renaissance. This was the well before the unification of Italy into a single kingdom in 1870. All of the individual cities, duchies, principalities and even the Papal States centered in Rome vied with each other to be the leader of the revival of classical Greco-Roman culture.

Piffaro co-director Robert Wiemken explained that the Duke was “passionate about music and went to great lengths to attract and support the best singers and instrumentalists he could find. You’ll hear selections from the ‘songbook’ that was created especially for the Duke’s remarkable wind band, which includes works by Johannes Ockeghem, Josquin des Prez, Johannes Martini and numerous other notable composers of the time.

“We’ll head out to the jousting field to hear the stirring sounds of mock battle, most memorably Morton’s ‘L’homme arme.’ And finally, we’ll visit the Duke’s newly formed theater in which he revived classical drama at his court, opening the way to a lively tradition of secular theater that lasted through the 16th century and that was significant in the pre-history of opera.”

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Robert Spano guest-conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in a pair of concerts Feb. 26 and 27 in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. Two works by Debussy bookended the program while another two by Pulitzer Prize-winning local composer and Curtis Institute of Music alumna and faculty member Jennifer Higdon were heard immediately before and after intermission. All four are splendid scores, and all four came together seamlessly.

Saturday evening’s principal piece was the Orchestra’s first renditions of Higdon’s prize-winning Violin Concerto, with Benjamin Beilman as soloist in his subscription concert debut. Composed in 2008 for Curtis alumna Hilary Hahn, the Violin Concerto is divided into three movements: 1726 (Curtis’ street address on Locust just off Rittenhouse Square), Chaconi and Fly Forward.

Although the first movement starts off with shards of melody from the violin and wisps of harmonies from the ensemble, discernible progressions establish themselves in the expanded tonal context of the composition. While an edgy, skittish mood predominates throughout the movement for the soloist, the music for the ensemble recalls the traditions of works by Barber (a fellow Curtis alumnus and pedagogue), Bartok and even Vaughan Williams without losing its own distinctive individual voice. The second movement evokes the austere chords of Hindemith, Kodaly and Stravinsky for the tutti against which the Barber-like solo lines sing eloquently. The third movement truly is a mad dash to its brilliant finale. Beilman proved himself a worthy interpreter of this splendid score Saturday evening.

Higdon’s “blue cathedral,” composed in 1999, remains one of her most accomplished works: spiritual and sensual, poignant and lustrous. Spano and the Philadelphians gave it a superb reading.


The Curtis Opera Theatre, with a little help from its friends Opera Philadelphia and the Kimmel Center, gave three performances of Richard Strauss’ magnificent “Ariadne auf Naxos” in the Perelman Theater. I caught opening night, Wednesday, March 4, and came away impressed by the incredibly high quality of Curtis’ opera program, the Curtis Symphony Orchestra, and the production’s staging in the perfectly sized and equipped Perelman of a devilishly tricky opera.

The usual quibble about “Ariadne auf Naxos” is that it’s too arch a concoction for its own good — and there’s no question but that it can come across as too artificial and contrived in its clash between classical culture and popular entertainment. The two are never quite so separate as the serious composer in the opera would initially have you believe. Each shares something of the other in its makeup.

But what is never questioned is the beauty of Strauss’ reworked 1916 score. He was a master of vocal writing, pairing post-Wagnerian thunder with lieder-like intimacy, and a peerless orchestrator who could conjure up billows of sumptuous sounds followed by delicate, transparent textures. Conductor George Manahan elicited exquisite playing from the Curtis Symphony and theatrical vocalism from his student singers.

Michael Caruso can be contacted at