by Michael Caruso
The Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Chestnut Hill, celebrated the ancient Feast of the Epiphany with a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols Sunday, Jan. 7. Epiphany, which means “manifestation,” recalls the visit of the wise men from the East who followed a star that led them to Bethlehem of Judea, where they paid homage to the infant Jesus. It’s a major holiday among all Latin-tradition Christians, especially Hispanics. It also coincides with the celebration of Christmas for Eastern Orthodox Christians, such as the Greek and Russian Churches.
Despite the frigid conditions outside, a hearty band braved the elements late Sunday afternoon to hear nine lessons drawn from both the Old and New Testaments, sing three hymns of the season, and hear eight choral carols sung by the Choir of St. Martin’s Church, which was conducted by its music director, Erik Meyer.
I’ve rarely encountered a more wisely chosen roster of pieces than those picked by Meyer for this service. All were beautiful in and of themselves, and all fit together into a seamless musical fabric. Several pieces were sung a cappella. Several other scores were accompanied by Meyer at the organ while he conducted. Two of those featured a flute descant.
John Rutter’s arrangement of “Now the holly bears a berry” received a reading of surpassing sweetness most appropriate for the gentle nature of its lyrics. Leo Nester’s “A child is born in Bethlehem” boasts Eastern modal harmonies and was sung with sensitively molded intensity.
The service’s most fascinating work was Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck’s “Hodie Christus natus est” (Today Christ is born). Sweelinck straddled the end of the Renaissance and the beginning of the Baroque styles of composition just as he, himself, straddled the conversion of his native Holland from Roman Catholic to Dutch Reformed (Calvinist). Sung in its original Latin and unaccompanied, Meyer and his choristers gave it a rendition that bristled with the congregational excitement of the holy day even as it recalled the contrapuntal polyphony of a bygone style.
Meyer was at the pipe organ for a delicately lilting interpretation of Hector Berlioz’ “Shepherd’s Farewell” from his oratorio, “L’enfance du Christ,” just as he was for a dramatic performance of H.C. Stewart’s “On this day earth shall ring.” He also led a stylish rendition of Benjamin Britten’s touching “Infant holy, infant lowly” and caught the poignancy of Martin Shaw’s arrangement of the traditional carol, “Lully, lulla.”
Throughout the entire roster of works, St. Martin’s Choir sang with admirable clarity of texture, breadth of dynamics, scope of emotional delineation, expert diction and exemplary tuning. Meyer bookended the service at the pipe organ with Max Reger’s “Weihnachten” (Christmas Eve) at the start and John Cook’s “Paean on Divinum Mysterium” to close. Both were played splendidly.
St. Martin’s will next celebrate Choral Evensong Sunday, Feb. 4, 5 p.m. Prior to that date, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, will celebrate Choral Evensong Sunday, Jan. 14, also at 5 p.m.
Guest conductor Pablo Heras-Casado lead the Philadelphia Orchestra in its first pair of subscription concerts of the new calendar year on Jan. 5 & 6 in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. Considering the near-zero temperatures outside, a surprisingly large audience was on hand to hear the world premiere of Samuel Jones’ Flute Concerto. The score is a commission by the Orchestra for its longtime principal flautist, Jeffrey Khaner.
Divided into three contrasting movements — Lament, Interludio and Dream Montage; The Great Bell: America Marching — the Concerto is voiced within the contemporary expansion of traditional tonality. Definable and discernible tonal centers combine to provide the listener with a fluid yet identifiable sense of harmonic progression.
You may not be able to guess where the music is going, but when it gets there, you’re fairly well convinced that’s where it was going all along. Although I would have preferred to hear more passages of solo and/or lightly accompanied flute playing, Jones’ orchestration managed to keep the delicate timbres of Khaner’s golden flute front and center.
Khaner was one of former music director Riccardo Muti’s most memorable appointments. He has been the Orchestra’s principal flautist since 1990. A graduate of the Juilliard School of Music, where he studied with Julius Baker, Khaner now occupies Baker’s seat on Juilliard’s faculty as well as a position on the faculty of Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music.
His performance of Jones’ Flute Concerto impressively displayed the talents Maestro Muti was looking for in a successor to Murray Panitz, Khaner’s predecessor with the Philadelphians from 1961 until 1989. Panitz’ predecessor was the nearly mythic William Kinkaid, who was the Orchestra’s principal flautist from 1921 until 1960 when the then-in-force mandatory retirement age of 65 forced him to relinquish the post. Among Kinkaid’s finest students was Julius Baker, making Khaner one of Kinkaid’s many musical grandchildren.
Khaner played the Concerto’s solo part with technical wizardry and lyrical expressivity. He used his clear yet unforced tone to weave the flute’s timbre within and beyond the orchestral scoring in an eloquent narrative of drama and beauty.
Saturday evening’s concert opened with a perfunctory reading of Schubert’s “Rosamunde” Overture. After intermission, Heras-Casado led the Orchestra in one of its repertory staples: Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D major, Opus 73. A specialty of both Eugene Ormandy and Wolfgang Sawallisch, the Second Symphony of Brahms is tailor-made for the Philadelphians, especially its exquisite writing for the string section.
In Ormandy’s day, the Orchestra’s strings were legendary for their silken sheen and glistening opulence. They and the entire ensemble sounded fine Saturday night in spite of Heras-Casado’s decision to eschew providing a personal interpretation in favor of performing athletic interpretive dance on the podium.
Music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin returns to conduct a program of music by Elgar, Handel and Britten on Jan. 11-13.