by Michael Caruso

The Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Chestnut Hill, hosted its Thirtieth Annual Advent Procession Sunday, December 4. The parish’s intimate Gothic Revival church was packed to see and hear its choir, under the direction of Erik Meyer, celebrate the Advent season in music, Scripture and prayer.

Meyer, himself, opened and closed the service with solo organ music. The Prelude was Hugo Distler’s somber setting of the chorale, “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” (Now comes the savior of the Gentiles); the Postlude was Johann Sebastian Bach’s brilliant setting of the same Lutheran theme.

The contrast between the two couldn’t have been more starkly or appropriately placed. Distler, who was born in Nuremburg in 1908 and who committed suicide in Berlin in 1942, harked back in style to the Renaissance and Baroque periods in that his music is deeply contrapuntal. If it weren’t for the poignant dissonances and their delayed resolutions, one might think he was an eccentric composer of the 18th century who relished harshly voiced harmonies. Bach certainly employed his fair share of dissonance, but those clashing harmonies were always the result of contrapuntal invention and they always resolved into the brightly hued consonances of the 18th century.

Meyer played the Distler with a deft touch for its troubling darkness and the Bach with an inventive ear for the brighter registrations of St. Martin’s lovely pipe organ.

St. Martin’s Choir opened and closed its portion of the liturgy with exquisite renditions of Advent and Vesper Responsories set by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, sung here in eloquent English translations from the original Latin. Each began with strong yet sensitive singing of the Gregorian plainsong on which the counterpoint was based, evoking the medieval origins of the marking of Advent, then branching out into full-throated and expertly blended and balanced singing of Palestrina’s masterful yet austere polyphony.

Poston’s “The tree of life my soul hath seen,” Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s “Never weather-beaten sail more willing bent to shore,” William Byrd’s “Ave verum corpus” (Hail, true body), Biebl’s “The Angel of the Lord brought tidings unto Mary,” Edward Bairstow’s “Let all mortal flesh keep silence,” and Paul Manz’s “Peace be to you and grace from him who freed us from our sins” filled out the anthem portion of the service. Under Meyer’s firm yet supple direction, St. Martin’s Choir sang with potent emotional delineation, intimate spiritual inspiration, and an exemplary projection of the mystery and joy that characterize the season of Advent.

The Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields will celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany with Lessons and Carols Sunday, Jan. 8, at 5 p.m.

‘CARMINA BURANA’

Chestnut Hill resident Cristian Macelaru, conductor-in-residence of the Philadelphia Orchestra, led the ensemble and a bevy of singers in performances of Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana.” The three concerts were heard in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall Dec. 8-10 and boasted contributions from soprano Olga Pudova, tenor Nicholas Phan, baritone Stephen Powell, the newly formed Philadelphia Symphonic Choir and the American Boychoir.

For most Philadelphians, the performance history of “Carmina Burana” involves the Pennsylvania Ballet more often than the “Fabulous Philadelphians.” John Butler’s acclaimed choreography of the secular and profane cantata, composed between 1935-36, has been a staple of the company’s repertoire very nearly since its inception in 1963. Not surprisingly, it was a welcome “ear-opener” to simply hear the music, itself, rather than as a tonal foundation for sensual modern dance.

Macelaru made a strong case for Orff’s most famous work as a concert piece. The composer’s palette of orchestral sound effects employed to support the choral delineation of sacred and profane texts discovered in a Benedictine monastery in 1803 is a marvel of textural imagination, dramatic rhythmic propulsion, and driving narrative development. The balance struck between full choruses for mixed choir and delicate movements for boychoir or solo arias is flawless. The choral and vocal writing, though intensely daunting, fits the texts like a glove, and the orchestral writing beneath it is both inspirational and supportive.

Macelaru marshaled his considerable forces like a commanding general. He kept his eye on the closing chorus from the first notes of the opening of the score, yet took time along the journey to proffer the audience that packed Verizon Hall one individual delight after the next.

The American Boychoir sang superbly, the men of the Symphonic Choir were weak but not so much as to damage the overall effect, and all three soloists efficaciously performed their parts. But it was the members of the Philadelphia Orchestra that stole the show. Macelaru elicited playing that was electrifying and sumptuous, seductive and dazzling.

COZY NOEL

The Tempesta di Mare Chamber Players celebrated the change of autumn into winter with a concert entitled “Winter: a Cozy Noel.” It was performed twice this weekend: Friday, Dec. 9 in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill and Saturday, Dec. 10, in the Arch Street Meeting House in the Old City section of Philadelphia.

The program’s centerpiece was Antonio Vivaldi’s “Winter” Concerto from “The Four Seasons,” Opus 8, no. 4. It was supplemented by Christopher Simpson’s “Winter Fantasia, Ayre & Galliard” and Giovanni Antonio Guido’s ”Winter” Concerto in B-flat, Opus 3, no. 3.

The close proximity of the Simpson and the Guido to the Vivaldi made it perfectly clear why the two former scores are relatively unknown while all four concerti from the larger Vivaldi opus are among the most famous pieces of Baroque music ever composed. The Venice-based master’s command over string textures is astounding for its brilliance in fast and loud sections and transparency and delicacy in its soft and slow moments. Vivaldi looks forward to not just Haydn but Beethoven in his dexterity of thematic development and overall structure, and his gift for a telling tune rivals those of Handel, Mozart and Schubert.

Of course, it didn’t hurt to hear as the soloist in the “Winter” Concerto Tempesta’s incomparable concertmaster, Emlyn Ngai. He played the dizzying pyrotechnical passages with spellbinding prowess and the lyrical second movement with eloquent phrasing.

All the same, my favorite part of the evening occurred at the very start, when the full complement of players gave a memorable rendition of Arcangelo Corelli’s sublime Concerto grosso “per la notte di Natale” (for the night of the Nativity). The early Baroque maestro’s peerless gift for melody and harmony, as well as his idiomatic writing for all the instruments in his arsenal, set the standard for the entire era, and Tempesta’s players played the score with touching intimacy and stylish panache. Noteworthy standouts were Gwyn Roberts & Heloise Degrugillier on recorders and Adam Pearl at the harpsichord.

 

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