by Michael Caruso
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, presented its first Choral Evensong song of 2017 Sunday, Jan. 29. The service marked the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul and featured the parish’s combined adult and treble choirs plus organ scholar Joseph Russell at the church’s incomparable Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ.
It was Russell who got the afternoon’s music making underway with a sterling performance of John Weaver’s Fantasy for Organ. Weaver was a longtime organ teacher at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, where Russell is currently a student.
The Fantasy opens with a nod to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata in D minor, one of the most famous pieces of classical music ever composed, with a brilliantly voiced flourish of a step-wise motif. Russell effectively caught its festive if occasionally dissonant exuberance, then executed a flawlessly gauged diminuendo traversing very loud to very soft. He chose perky flutes against strings with tremolo for the Fantasy’s middle section, achieving an almost inter-galactic sound, then reprised the opening’s flourish with even more tonal amplitude and bravura for a shimmering finale.
The afternoon’s two major choral works were the “Magnificat” and “Nunc Dimittis” from Thomas Tertius Noble’s Evening Service in B minor. The English composer, who lived from 1867 until 1953, followed up posts as organist & choirmaster at Ely Cathedral and York Minster in England with the same position at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Fifth Avenue, in New York City from 1913 until 1943. He established the music program there on the lines of those at England’s Anglican cathedrals and founded the St. Thomas Choir School for Boys in 1919. His 1912 edition of Handel’s “Messiah” for the Schirmer Publishing Co. remains the most often used.
Noble followed the narrative of the text in both the ”Magnificat” and “Nunc Dimittis” with skill and invention. The former begins with joyous vitality, then tranforms the scope of emotions to gentle intimacy for the words, “He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel.” In the latter, Noble set a much more reflective mood at the start of the score, then opened wide the boundaries to let the sunshine abound in both the phrases and their harmonies for the text, “To be a light to lighten the Gentiles.”
Parish music director Zachary Fritsch-Hemenway led the combined adult and treble choristers in sterling renditions of both works. Ensemble within the two choral forces and with Russell at the organ was immaculate, as was pitch and diction from the singers. Both loud and soft singing were well placed and expertly projected, delineating the shifting emotions behind the words of the two texts.
The afternoon’s anthem at the Offertory was Sydney Campbell’s “Sing we merrily unto God our strength.” Fritsch-Hemenway explained that this was the third time he had scheduled the score for performance in a Choral Evensong but the first time the performance had actually taken place. The two previous times had seen the performance cancelled due to inclement weather. The third was obviously the charm – and well worth the wait. It’s a jaunty little number whose spiky rhythms were sung and played with technical expertise and interpretive aplomb.