by Michael Caruso
The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill played host last weekend to two Christmas concerts that occupied the polar opposites of the choral repertoire. Donald Nally led The Crossing, the chamber choir he founded 10 years ago, in their annual “The Crossing @ Christmas” Friday, Dec. 18, before an audience that packed the church. The following evening saw and heard Piffaro, Tempesta di Mare and Choral Arts Philadelphia perform “Christmas in Germany: Advent Vespers 1619.” The latter harked back to some of the earliest extant musical celebrations of the birth of Jesus Christ while the former offered some of the most recent contributions to that literature. It’s a testament to the church’s exemplary acoustics that both concerts couldn’t have sounded better anywhere else.
Over the 10 years of his stewardship of The Crossing, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a more perfectly assembled and peerlessly performed program from Donald Nally and his choir as I heard Friday evening. One might worry that a choir dedicated to new music would have difficulty bringing together a sufficient number of choral pieces written for the Christmas season to make for a satisfying concert.
Put your worries aside. With Nally’s dedication to finding the finest composers and their finest compositions, the challenge was not merely met, but a whole new standard of excellence was established by this year’s “The Crossing @ Christmas.”
Nally brought together a roster of pieces neatly balanced between works that were new and those that were new takes on traditional carols. Throughout the singing of all these works, Nally exhibited a level of artistic command unmatched among local choral conductors since the heyday of the late Michael Korn, founder of the now-lamented Philadelphia Singers.
Nally and The Crossing revealed the other side of their coin in the contemporary versions of traditional Christmas songs such as Benjamin Boyle’s “Three Carols of Wintertide,” Thomas Ades’ “The Fairfax Carol,” Kenneth Leighton’s “O Leave Your Sheep” and Andrew Gant’s “What Child Is This?”
These pieces received romantic renditions, uncovering still another aspect of Nally’s interpretive genius. Nally and The Crossing received immeasurable help from organist Scott Dettra, who linked the choral pieces with solo works by Dietrich Buxtehude, one of J.S. Bach’s mightiest predecessors in 17th & 18th century Germany.
By its very nature, the following evening’s “Christmas in Germany: Advent Vespers, Dresden 1619” was a different affair. Whereas “The Crossing @ Christmas” was presented as one uninterrupted musical event, “Advent Vespers” was offered as a musical re-creation of an Advent Vespers services as it might have been celebrated in the wealthy Saxon city of Dresden in the early 17th century. The roster of music followed Martin Luther’s reformed version of the Roman Catholic Vespers liturgy, mixing the old with the new. Some of the texts were still in Latin while others had been translated into German. Interspersed between polyphonic contemporary choral settings were chant melodies a thousand years old.
The program’s first half was comprised of small choral, instrumental and/or combined pieces by Michael Praetorius, Heinrich Schutz and Samuel Scheidt. After intermission, Choral Arts, Piffaro and Tempesta joined forces for the evening’s major work, Praetorius’ setting of the traditional Latin text, “Magnificat.” This was by far the concert’s finest score, and it received its finest rendition. Choral Arts sang with confidence, and the musicians of Tempesta and Piffaro played as though they formed a single ensemble.
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