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 opened its 2016-17 season of “Cantatas and Chamber Music” Sunday afternoon, Oct. 2, with a performance of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s “Missa Papae Marcelli.” Music director Daniel Spratlan led professional soloists from the congregation’s Gallery Choir in singing one of the most celebrated scores of the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation, which grew out of the Council of Trent that met between 1545 and 1563.

In response to the Lutheran and Calvinist Protestant Reformation, the Church of Rome dramatically reformed its liturgy and the music that was performed within it. Palestrina composed the “Missa Papae Marcelli” in 1562, not long before the Council’s culmination, in honor of Pope Marcellus II, whose short reign in 1555 fell within the meetings of the Council. Its style, though impressively contrapuntal for its six voice parts, offers a more direct setting of the Latin text of the Ordinary of the Mass, those portions of the liturgy that remain unchanged whenever the Mass is celebrated.

The opening “Kyrie” is one of the most syllabic settings of the Greek text in the entire Renaissance repertoire. One has the feeling that Palestrina was creating an entirely new language for sacred choral music, one that prized the delineation of the words as highly as the unfolding of modal counterpoint. But there’s no denying that that unfolding transpires seamlessly from one vocal line to the next and with unshakeable balance from start to finish.

The “Gloria” is equally impressive in its exuberant recasting of the angel’s announcement to the shepherds of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the city of David. The “Credo,” the creed defining the Christian faith adopted at the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople, is an even more potent piece of choral music, both stalwart in mood and defining in doctrine.

And then there’s the “Sanctus,” a miracle of angelic solemnity, including one of the brightest settings of the “Osanna in excelsis” in the canon, followed by the sweetest “Benedictus” I know. In all three sections, Palestrina produced an uninterrupted flow of harmonies, expressed through transparent counterpoint, transporting the spirit beyond this world and into an intimation of the next.

One might fear that Palestrina could never have maintained this peerless standard of inspiration into and through the closing “Agnus Dei,” but that is precisely what he did. Through measured cadences and concise word painting, he brought the “Missa Papae Marcelli” to a moving conclusion.

Sunday afternoon’s performance was distinguished by much glorious singing under Daniel Spratlan’s conducting, especially from tenors Nick Karageorgiou and Kevin Radtke and bass-baritone Robby Eisentrout. Karageorgiou’s tartly expressive colors rang out with both clarity and subtlety while Radtke’s fuller bodied tones held the higher and lower surrounding vocal lines in poised balance. Eisentrout’s tonal warmth provided a sumptuous counterpart to the two tenors, with Spratlan himself and Jackson Williams providing a rock-solid bass foundation. The one weak link in the vocal chain was Joanna Gates, whose alto offered neither the stylistic blend of a countertenor nor the silvery contrast of a historically appropriate boy treble. Soprano Rebecca Siler’s joining the consort for the “Agnus Dei II” was most welcome.

The sublime beauty of the “Missa Papae Marcelli” is so striking that the score glows even when not being performed in its intended context, that is, during the celebration of Mass. In all of Greater Philadelphia, there are only a handful of churches where one can hear this repertoire within that setting. One is St. Mark’s Church in Center City Philadelphia, where the parish’s recently named music director, Robert McCormick, was installed earlier in the day. I attended Choral High Mass and heard McCormick lead his choir in Harold Darke’s lovely Communion Service in A minor. The singing was exquisite.


Lyric Fest will open its 2016-17 season Saturday, Oct. 8, 7:30 p.m., in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill with “I Hear America Singing,” a concert celebrating America’s cultural identity through the works of the nation’s composers of songs. The program will be repeated Sunday, Oct. 9, 3 p.m., in the Warden Theater of the Academy of Vocal Arts in Center City.

Lyric Fest was founded in 2003 by East Falls mezzo-soprano Suzanne DuPlantis and Chestnut Hill pianist Laura Ward with the goal of bringing to local audiences the rich tapestry of American vocal music. DuPlantis and Ward and their guest artists often cross the unspoken but daunting line between classical and popular styles to provide their audiences with the popular foundation upon which so much American classical vocal music is based. The vast roster of songs from Broadway musicals easily blends into the repertoire of classical art songs and even modern opera arias.

As DuPlantis has said, “When people raise their voices in song, you get the sense of who they are. Whether it is the purity of shape note singing as communal expression, a patriotic strain or the art music of our most revered composers, there’s a lifting up of the American spirit.”

Ward added, “The program captures the beauty, humor, compassion, divisiveness, passion and zeal that is evident throughout America’s colorful musical history.”

The concert will give a brief but telling overview of the heritage of American songwriting. It is stitched together like a quilt from regions as disparate as the Appalachian mountains, New England whaling villages, cowboy tunes from the Wild West, religious revival meetings in tents and songs from the South as told in Tennessee Williams’ plays and William Faulkner’s novels. The repertoire includes works such as John Corigliano’s setting of Bob Dylan’s poem, “Chimes of Freedom” and Stephen Foster’s “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” as arranged by Ned Rorem, an alumnus of Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music and a longtime member of its composition faculty.

Songs by Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber will also be performed. Copland is frequently called America’s greatest classical composer. Barber was born in West Chester and was also a Curtis alumnus. His “Adagio for Strings” (expanded from the slow movement of his String Quartet upon a request by Arturo Toscanini) is among the most beloved of orchestral works, and his opera, “Antony and Cleopatra,” opened the new Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center in 1966.

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