By Michael Caruso
Zachary Fritsch-Hemenway, the director of music at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill, has been even busier than usual this Advent season. He was the organist for “Christmas at the Cathedral Basilica” Sunday, Dec. 11, and then led the annual Lessons and Carols at St. Paul’s Church Sunday, Dec. 18. In all the manifestations of his musical talents, he both proved himself to be the leading church musician in Greater Philadelphia and St. Paul’s Lessons and Carols to be its gold standard.
Now in its fourth decade, St. Paul’s Festival of Lessons and Carols follows the tradition established in the 19th century by Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Edward Benson at Truro Cathedral in England. Based on the medieval vigils of holy days throughout the liturgical calendar, it combines through scripture readings, choral carols and congregational hymns the mystery and joy of the Christian belief in the Incarnation of the second person of the Triune God in Jesus Christ.
Fritsch-Hemenway set a musical program of carols sung by the 80-plus-member combined Choirs of St. Paul’s Church and hymns of the season for the congregation. Together they perfectly augmented the readings drawn from both the Old Testament promising the arrival of a Messiah and the Gospels of Luke, Matthew and John heralding that manifestation. The entire service of nine readings, seven choral carols and eight congregational hymns took no more than 90 minutes. It was a triumph of concision if ever there was one.
The carols covered a trajectory that enhanced the scriptural narrative. It began with David Ashley White’s austere “Adam Lay Ybounden” and continued through John Gardner’s vibrant “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day,” Harold Darke’s poignantly solemn “In the Bleak Midwinter,” Andrew Carter’s sparkling arrangement of “Angelus ad Virginem,” John Tavener’s Russian Orthodox-inspired “God Is With Us,” Paul Halley’s lullaby-like arrangement of “Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head” to end with Daniel Pinkham’s dramatic “Christmas Cantata.” The roster of choral pieces opened an emotional and ultimately spiritual window into the journey through Advent to Christmas Day.
Fritsch-Hemenway led his choirs – superbly accompanied by organ scholar Joseph Russell — with commanding skill. Although the soprano section may be the particular standout – and the finest section of sopranos in Greater Philadelphia – the entire combined ensemble of adults and youngsters sang spectacularly well Sunday afternoon for a crowd of 600 that packed the church. At full throttle, the loud singing was never harsh or shrill – simply overwhelming in its power. At a hushed whisper, the tone was never fuzzy or unsteady – just a revelation of the soul’s small, quiet inner voice. Tuning, balance and blend were immaculate from start to finish. Descants soared above principal themes. And diction in both English and Latin set and held a peerless standard of clarity.
I suspect that no cathedral in America – not Roman Catholic, Anglican or Orthodox – could have offered a finer Lessons and Carols as that which was heard in Chestnut Hill this past Sunday afternoon.
Although most of Fritsch-Hemenway’s work Dec. 11 at the Roman Catholic Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter & Paul was that of accompanist to the numerous choral ensembles that sang, he was heard as a soloist in two settings by Johann Sebastian Bach of the chorale theme “Nun komm der Heiden Heiland” (Come now, Savior of the Gentiles), BWV 659 & 661. Despite the limitations of playing a pipe organ in desperate need of either a total renovation or a complete replacement, Fritsch-Hemenway caught that feeling of the darkest point of the night just before the dawn in the first setting and then the brilliance of the full arrival of the sun upon the birth of Jesus Christ in the second. He wisely chose registrations for the former that highlighted its still beautiful string tones and, for the latter, that made the most use of its brighter stops to overcome the excessive reverberation of the Cathedral Basilica. His playing in both chorale preludes exhibited a commanding technical clarity and a moving interpretive style.
Fritsch-Hemenway was also heard with several of the instrumentalists who took part in the concert. He and violinist Karen Banos gave a lovely reading to Maurice Ravel’s “Pavanne pour une infante defunte,” transcribed from its original piano setting. Fritsch-Hemenway evoked the instrumental timbres of the composer’s own arrangement for full orchestra while Banos’ violin playing sang with the lyricism of a French vocalist. He joined trumpeters Ed Jakaboski and David Orechowsky for “The Rejoicing” movement from George Frideric Handel’s “Music for the Royal Fireworks.”
“Christmas at the Cathedral Basilica” was directed by Charlene Angelini, the newly named head of liturgical music for the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter & Paul and the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The two ensembles directly under her command that took part Sunday afternoon were the 13-member Cathedral Choir and the 38-member Archdiocesan Adult Choir. Also taking part was the 23-member Archdiocesan Boy and Girl Choir, directed by Michael Zupert. In music by Hassler, Thompson, Vivaldi, Lohman, Sleeth, Holst, Lauridsen, Manz, Garnder and Nestor, all three ensembles sang admirably. Although none proffered the kind of choral heft needed to fill the majestic expanses of the Cathedral Basilica – in need, I might add, of even more restoration than its pipe organ – each performed well either separately or in ensemble. Both Angelini and Zupert elicited singing of tonal beauty, exemplary tuning, fine balance, and a powerful commitment to the special place of sacred choral music in the celebration of the Advent season of preparing for the birth of Jesus Christ.