The Brandywine Singers

The Brandywine Singers

by Michael Caruso

The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill continues to enhance its reputation as the preferred venue for choruses and period instruments ensembles throughout the region. Reaching out beyond local ensembles such as The Crossing, Tempesta di Mare and Piffaro, Chestnut Hill Presbyterian will host the Brandywine Singers in the American premier of Carl Fasch’s “Mass for 16 Voices” Saturday, March 12, 7 p.m. The program will also include Francis Poulenc’s “Lenten Motets.”

Frasch’s “Mass for 16 Voices” was a life-long project for the German composer, who was born in 1736 and died in 1800. His “Mass for 16 Voices” wasn’t published until 1839. The Brandywine Singers will perform the new edition of the work completed in 2015 by Ryan Kelly.

“I was originally drawn to the intricate beauty of Carl Fasch’s ‘Mass for 16 Voices,’” Kelly explained. “My interest deepened, however, the more I got to know the composer — his gregarious teaching personality, innovative compositional style and visionary organizational leadership. His Mass is a hybrid virtuosic choral work unmatched by contemporaries, and his founding of the Berlin Sing-Akademie internationally influenced the development of community choral singing.” Fasch’s contemporaries included both Haydn and Mozart.

The Brandywine Singers were founded in 1993 by retired West Chester University professor Lois Williams and continue to be based in West Chester. More information at


St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, celebrated a Choral Evensong on Sunday, Feb. 28. The service included in its musical roster two of the most daunting choral works in the repertoire. Both were given sterling renditions.

For its setting of the traditional “Magnificat” (My soul doth magnify the Lord), the parish’s 60-member adult choir sang the version written in 1989 by Arvo Part, the contemporary Estonian composer who is considered one of the masters of our time. For the Anthem at the Offertory, music director Zachary Fritsch-Hemenway chose Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere mei, Deus” (Have mercy upon me, O God), a score drawn out of legend and one that boasts five “High Cs” for the treble or soprano soloist in the vocal quartet drawn from within the chorus.

Sunday afternoon’s soloist was Diana Whitener, and she hit every one of those five “High Cs” right on the mark. Not only that, but she placed that stunning individual note within the context of a lyrically shaped phrase that projected not so much virtuosity as the spiritual truth of the Psalm text. Even more impressively, she couched the tone of her voice securely within the framework of the other three members of the quartet, which itself was seamlessly placed within the overall balance of the “other” soloists — the men singing the chant. Few cathedral choirs in the world could manage such a feat, yet under the expert direction of Fritsch-Hemenway, the choir at St. Paul’s Church pulled it off as though it were no challenge at all, singing the music as an implicit expression above and beyond the explicit meaning of the words of the text.

This praise is not meant to underplay the achievement of the performance given Part’s “Magnificat” Sunday afternoon. The Estonian’s trademark closely voiced dissonant harmonies, extravagant leaps, expansive ranges and long-breathed lines are all in evidence in this work. For a professional chorus to manage them would be daunting; for a parish choir to do so with such serene sureness is amazing — and a testament to Fritsch-Hemenway’s masterful teaching abilities, to say nothing of his talent as a conductor and the commitment of the choristers.

The next Choral Evensong at St. Paul’s is scheduled for Sunday, March 20, Palm Sunday and the opening of Holy Week.