by Michael Caruso

Matthew Glandorf will conduct Choral Arts Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Bach Collegium and the Dark Horse Consort in a performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s “Vespers of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary” of 1610. The concert is scheduled for the afternoon of New Year’s Eve day, Sunday, Dec. 31, 4 p.m. in St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, 2013 Appletree St., just off Logan Circle in Center City.

Included among the vocalists is Chestnut Hill soprano Rebecca Myers Hoke. “This is my first time ever performing this work,” she explained, “and I am super excited to dig into this fabulous music.”

Monteverdi played a seminal part in the stylistic transformation of classical music from the Renaissance to the Baroque. Born in 1567 in the city of Cremona in the Duchy of Milan, Monteverdi died in 1643 in the Most Serene Republic of Venice (“La Serenissima”). Although he did not write the very first opera – an attempt by late Italian Renaissance composers to revive the ancient Greek dramas – he did compose, in 1607, the first operatic masterpiece, “L’Orfeo.”

Alongside sacred choral works written for the Basilica of San Marco in Venice, he composed scores of madrigals that remain an essential part of the vocal repertoire still performed today. Many years ago, the late Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti told me that in Italy, Monteverdi is considered the greatest of all opera composers.

“I have performed some of his many madrigals with my vocal sextet, Variant Six,” Hoke said. “In April, I will be going on tour with Apollo’s Fire Baroque Orchestra to Ohio, Michigan and California and will be performing Monteverdi’s ‘L’Orfeo,’ which I also have never sung. It’s the year of Monteverdi for me, and I couldn’t be happier.

“I love singing Monteverdi, and I know that I will really enjoy learning the ‘Vespers.’ I think performers love singing his music because it feels so ahead of its time. The harmonic language and structure are surprisingly advanced, and his text setting is also really tremendous. For me, it just feels good to sing this type of music. I also love having the freedom to ornament and make the music my own, which is highly appropriate and was even expected during this time period.”

Hoke’s season has included singing in a world premiere (Opera Philadelphia’s “The Wake World”), a full season with The Crossing (the contemporary music choir based at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill) and appearances with Seraphic Fire. She has also worked with the Santa Fe Desert Chorale, Skylark Vocal Ensemble, Kinnara and Opus Opera.

“I will also be singing for the first time with Lyric Fest for their Debussy program in February.” Lyric Fest was founded by East Falls mezzo-soprano Suzanne DuPlantis and Chestnut Hill pianist Laura Ward. Many of their concerts are performed in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill.

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Zachary Fritsch-Hemenway, director of music at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, had an even busier-than-usual month this December. Instead of the regular once-a-month Choral Evensong, Fritsch-Hemenway conducted the combined Choirs of St. Paul’s Church in two celebrations of the traditional Anglican liturgy of Lessons and Carols.

The first took place Sunday afternoon, Dec. 3, while the second occurred Sunday, Dec. 17. The former celebrated the start of the season of Advent, those four weeks of preparation for the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem of Judea; the latter was a festival celebrating that very birth. Both services were marked by lessons, seven for Advent and nine for Christmas, enhanced by motets and anthems sung by the choir and carols sung by the entire congregation.

Although the Advent service featured admirable singing, it was during the Dec. 17 Festival of Lessons and Carols that Fritsch-Hemenway and his choristers achieved a level of singing that easily rivaled if not surpassed similar efforts at any cathedral in the U.S. or by any similar institution in the United Kingdom. You would have had to attend services at King’s College, Cambridge, or Westminster Abbey to have experienced better programming or heard finer singing.

Following the tradition established at King’s College, Cambridge, St. Paul’s Festival of Lessons and Carols got underway with the singing of “Once in Royal David’s City.” Its first verse was sung by a solo treble, the second by the entire choir and the remaining four verses by a congregation that numbered well over 500.

The roster of choral works performed and the interpretations they received under Fritsch-Hemenway’s inspired hand were even more impressive. The performance of Phillip Ledger’s “Sussex Carol” was notable for a flawlessly projected soprano line heard above the principal tune. The men sang with exemplary strength in Boris Ord’s “Adam Lay Ybounden.” The imitative melodies of Paul Manz’ “E’en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come” evoked the desire of humanity for the arrival of the Messiah, both then and now.

The interpretation given Simon Preston’s arrangement of “I Saw Three Ships” featured a vibrant dialogue between the women and men of the choir, which included 24 trebles and 48 adults. Fritsch-Hemenway caught the sentiment-laden simplicity of John Rutter’s “There Is a Flower” while the eloquent combination of old and new in Herbert Howells’ “Sing Lullaby” was delicately offered through smoothly delineated swells of dynamics.

William Walton’s “Make We Joy Now in This Fest” was sung by the members of the choir placed in the outer aisles, enabling the choristers to provide “surround sound.” Walton’s use of both English and Latin texts magically brought the past into the present, reiterating the ancient traditions upon which Lessons and Carols is based.

The service’s most ear-opening number was the “Huron Carol,” Paul Halley’s arrangement of a Native American carol. The unusual imagery of its text describing the birth of the Holy Child was beautifully delivered under Fritsch-Hemenway’s sensitive hand. Coming at the end, Walther Matthias’ “A Babe Is Born” received a reading full of rhythmic vitality.

The service’s most powerful pairing of reading and singing came at the fifth lesson and the Rachmaninoff motet that followed. The reading was the Archangel Gabriel’s “Annunciation” of the coming birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary as found in the New Testament Gospel of St. Luke. The Rachmaninoff was the “Ave Maria” movement from his “All Night Vigil.”

The reading contains the seminal Christian belief that Jesus was and is the son of God and that Mary would give birth to him. The Old Church Slavonic text Rachmaninoff used begins with the phrase “Rejoice O Virgin Theotokos” (God-bearer), a title held to be true by Catholic and Orthodox Christians as well as by many Anglicans.

Rachmaninoff’s setting of the words recalls centuries upon centuries of inexplicable faith in a mystery that is to those who believe a truth greater than discernible fact. The unforced rhythms of the melodies and their slow-moving harmonies evoke eternity. Fritsch-Hemenway conducted this trembling masterpiece with a loving delicacy that seemed to have neither beginning nor end but that always was and always will be.

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