Inside the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. (Photo courtesy of the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill)

Inside the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. (Photo courtesy of the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill)

by Michael Caruso

The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill hosted a “Cantatas and Chamber Music” recital Sunday afternoon, March 22, in its intimate Burleigh Cruikshank Memorial Chapel. The program featured music by Bach, Handel, Byrd, Guerrero, Lobo and Lotti and was performed by eight soloists from the congregation’s Gallery Choir and a period instruments ensemble led by concertmaster Rebecca Harris under the baton of the church’s music director, Daniel Spratlan.

The afternoon’s principal work was Bach’s Cantata No. 12: “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” (Weeping, wailing, worries, woes), one of the scores Bach composed for St. Thomas’ Church, Leipzig, Germany, to be sung during the season of Lent.

Spratlan led both the Chorus and the Chorale with a fine feel for the music’s carefully crafted counterpoint, maintaining a solemn mood in the former and muted joy in the latter. If there was any drawback to the singing, it was in the sopranos’ hard-edged timbre. Perhaps they were attempting to imitate the tart tones of the boy trebles that sang in Bach’s own choir at St. Thomas’ Church, Leipzig, but in the small confines and bright acoustics of the Chapel, such an attempt proved counterproductive.

It was in the fifth movement, the bass aria “Ich folge Christo nach” (I follow after Christ), that the finest singing was heard. Brandon Gaines sang with exemplary amplitude of dark colorations yet with impressive flexibility of dynamics. The vocal portion of the concert opened with Byrd’s “Civitas Sancti” (Holy City), a work of austere modal harmony that lays bare any imperfection of tuning.

After a somewhat shaky start, Spratlan led his eight singers in a performance that captured the classical quality of Byrd’s Latin Catholic music, composed by special dispensation by Queen Elizabeth I at the very time she was establishing the Church of England, no longer in communion with the Apostolic See in Rome.

ORGAN RECITAL: Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church will present organist Isabelle Demers in recital on its Mander pipe organ Friday, April 10, at 8 p.m. Admission is free.


Earlier in the afternoon, I paid my first visit to Epiphany Chapel at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, where the Chestnut Hill Historical Society continued its focus on local houses of worship. The Chapel is the home of the Cresheim Valley Church, a mission of historic Tenth Presbyterian Church in center city Philadelphia. Tenth Presbyterian fought a successful battle to withdraw from the more liberal Presbyterian Church USA and became a seminal part of the more conservative denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America.

Sunday’s event featured a lecture by George Bryant on the recently restored stained glass windows designed early in the 20th century by Henry Holiday, but it also included vocal selections by West Mt. Airy bass-baritone Justin Hopkins, who regularly sings at the church. A graduate of Holy Redeemer School, St. Joseph’s Prep and Loyola University, Hopkins sang the aria “Lord God of Abraham” from Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio, “Elijah,” with passionate intensity drawn from a deep well of tonal beauty. The Chapel’s intimate acoustics make it a perfect venue for the solo voice.


Gianadrea Noseda guest-conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra is a trio of concerts March 20, 21 and 22 in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. Although the program featured the return to Philadelphia of Curtis Institute of Music alumna Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg in Mendelssohn’s “Violin Concerto in E minor,” it was the pair of scores that opened and closed the concert — Respighi’s Second Suite of “Ancient Airs and Dances” and Holst’s “The Planets” — that offered the evening’s finest music making.

Holst composed “The Planets” between 1914 and 1916, the first years of World War I. The conflict forever changed the face of Europe. Three of the four imperial houses (in Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary) were overthrown, while in the United Kingdom, the House of Windsor began overseeing the slow but inexorable dismantling of the British Empire that had once commanded one-fourth of the earth’s land and one-fourth of its population.

No wonder, then, that the first movement of “The Planets” — “Mars, the Bringer of War” — should be the most bombastic section of the Suite and, perhaps, the most aggressive music Holst ever composed. Noseda and the Philadelphians gave it a reading replete with both the majesty and brutality of the mythological god the ancient Romans so admired.

Salerno-Sonnenberg’s reading of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto was another matter. Her tone was consistently thin and poorly projected, her phrasing was more jagged than lyrical, and her playing as a whole failed to coalesce into a convincing interpretation of the first great violin concerto of the Romantic age.