An alumnus of Germantown Friends School, guitarist Michael Poll is in the process of transcribing the original music of Johann Sebastian Bach from the lute to the seven-string guitar. (Photo by Michael Poll)

by Michael Caruso

On the heels of several months of speculation, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, announced Thursday, April 5, that Zachary Hemenway, its music director for the past 10 years, will be leaving his position as of Sunday, June 3.

Hemenway has taken a 167-years-old piece of advice and is “going west” — about as far west as you can within the continental U.S. He will be taking up the post of music director of the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Seattle, Washington.

(Ed. Note: “Go West, young man” is a phrase often credited to the New York author and newspaper editor Horace Greeley concerning America’s expansion westward, related to the then-popular concept of Manifest Destiny. It was first stated by John Babsone Lane Soule in an 1851 editorial in the Terre Haute Express, “Go west young man, and grow up with the country.” Greeley later used the quote in his own editorial in 1865.)

In a posting to the parish, Rector Clifford Cutler wrote, “When we hire well and the staff person is young, they are not likely to stay forever. If anything, that says we have done our job well. We have helped to shape Zach as the musician he is. At the same time, he has developed us adding to our music ministry: choristers, organ scholars, choral scholars and helped connect music with mission through our Five Fridays Recitals.

“I have often said that music is a dependable strength of St. Paul’s Church going back to at least Tommy Dunn, who arrived at St. Paul’s in 1946, also stayed 10 years and went on to direct the Handel and Haydn Society of New York. We have had top notch music here going on 75 years.”

Cutler explained that a search committee would be formed this week, and postings of the position will be sent out. “We plan on hiring our new music director in the fall who will sustain and build further our strong musical tradition,” Cutler said.

LUTE TO GUITAR

It’s often been said that Johann Sebastian Bach composed his music first and then assigned it to the nearest instrument on hand. Whereas it’s easy to guess what instrument his contemporary George Frideric Handel intended to play a particular piece of music, with Bach the music often looks the same on paper from one instrument to the next.

Perhaps that’s why Bach’s music is so often transcribed – first by Bach himself and then by instrumentalists different from those he originally intended. Guitarist Michael Poll, a K-12 alumnus of Germantown Friends School, is one of many musicians involved in just such an endeavor. In Poll’s case, he has recently transcribed two suites for lute for the seven-string guitar.

Following graduation from Germantown Friends, Poll earned a bachelor’s degree in music at the University of Pennsylvania, a post-graduate performance diploma at the Paderewski Academy of Music in Poznan (Poland) as a Fulbright Scholar and a master of music degree in guitar at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London as a Marshall (post-graduate) Scholar.

“My mom used to listen to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the car,” he said explaining how he became interested in music and the guitar. “I wanted to be a rock star. She was also the one who encouraged me to take up the classical guitar and learn some technique. I had a wonderful first classical guitar teacher named Emiliano Pardo-Tristan, who really nurtured my love of music. He sent me to hear my first guitar recital, given by Jorge Morel. It was epic. I was hooked after that.”

Poll was first introduced to Bach’s Suite for Lute in E minor when he was 11 or 12 years old and was immediately taken by the music. “I think guitarists have, as the result of a tradition of transcription and arrangement on the instrument, come to think of the lute suites as standard guitar repertoire,” Poll continued. “This is, of course, not true in point of fact, but the robust history of arranging for the instrument means that there is a tradition of musical adaptation that makes guitarists inclined to feel that our adaptations are original.

“Arrangements, however, are a statement of aesthetic on the part of the arranger, and I wanted to approach the works in a historically informed way but not explicitly as historical performance, that is, not on the lute. There is something immediate in being able to hear the works in a familiar idiom on a familiar instrument but also magical in hearing the counterpoint as Bach wrote it for the lute. That’s what the seven-string guitar allows me to do – preserve the original pitch content while playing on a modern instrument.”

Poll explained that the seven-string guitar boasts an additional bass string and is tuned differently by the maker. The transcription process involved making decisions about chord voicing, which in turn impacts phrasing and articulation.

“The lute and guitar differ greatly in their capacity to sustain the sound,” Poll pointed out. “While a lute player might decorate a chord or a line extensively with ornamentation, a guitarist might elect a less decorated, more plaintive approach in acknowledgement of the greater duration of notes of which the guitar is capable. I was much influenced by the differences between the lute and violin autographs in thinking about where and how to ornament, since in many ways I think the greater sustain on the guitar places it somewhere between the lute and the baroque violin in its capabilities.”

Michael Poll’s recording of the Lute Suites No. 1 in E minor and No. 4 in E major was released April 6 on Orchid Classics; visit www.orchid-music.Ink.to/michaelpoll.

GRACE & GRANDEUR

The Pennsylvania Ballet performed “Grace & Grandeur” in the Merriam Theater April 5-8. The program offered a beguiling trio of one-act works that showed the company dancing romantic, modern and neo-classical ballet.

First on the bill was “Paquita,” with choreography by Marius Petipa to a score by Ludwig Minkus. It pits one male principal dancer “vis-à-vis” a bevy of female principals, soloists and corps de ballet dancers. Premiered in 1847 at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, it’s been in the Pennsylvania Ballet’s repertoire since 1987.

“Paquita” is comprised of a series of short movements first featuring the corps and then soloists and then principals and finally the spotlighted couple. Virtually all of Minkus’ music is upbeat with a mildly Latin tinge to its color, so everyone is regularly dashing about the stage – which at the Merriam was shown to be a tad too small for the number of dancers gracing it.

Commanding center stage as the leads were two of the company’s Cuban-born dancers, Mayara Pineiro and Arian Molina Soca. Together they made a regal pair. Pineiro displayed an unerring sense of timing on the beat of the music, exquisite point work and a lovely sense of line. These all worked well in sympathetic combination with Molina Soca’s aristocratic bearing and muscular virtuosity. The full-throttle extension of his leaps was breathtaking.

Among the other principals dancing Friday evening was Germantown resident, Oksana Maslova. Her focused intensity and blazing speed invested her dancing with a “joie de vivre” that enchanted the audience.

“For Four,” with choreography by Christopher Wheeldon to music by Franz Schubert, is one of those rare ballets featuring four men and no women. It premiered in New York City in 2006 and has been in the Pennsylvanians’ repertoire since 2016.

Its musical inspiration is the slow movement from Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” string quartet, here heard in a version for full string orchestra. It offers solos, duets, trios and full quartets of dancers dressed in and backed by red, green, brown and blue. Its movements are smoothly connected and sensuously projected in keeping with the spirit of the score.

Dancing Friday evening were Ian Hussey, Aleksey Babayev, Ashton Roxander and Russell Ducker. Each impressed individually yet came together efficaciously for the work’s varied and demanding ensemble combinations.

Last on the bill was “Theme and Variations,” choreography by George Balanchine to music by Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky. Although the work itself remains a marvel of neo-classical perfection, the rendition it received Friday evening was as far from perfect as I’ve seen from the company in many a season.

Balanchine’s choreography is a bit like Mozart’s piano music: it’s so clean and precise that even the slightest mishap sounds (or in this case, looks) like a cosmic disaster. Every gesture and movement choreographed by Balanchine needs to be performed flawlessly and must work in immaculate synchronization with the gestures and movements of every other dancer onstage for the true effect to take shape.

Simply put, that did not happen Friday evening. Of all the dancers performing, only Lilian DiPiazza acquitted herself in a manner that would have made “Mr. B” happy. She danced with sparkling clarity of gesture and eloquent lyricism of line. Unfortunately, her partner Jack Thomas’ dancing was pale and nondescript. Worse still, there were more than a handful of bumps in the ensemble of the corps.

Nathan Fifield guest conducted the Pennsylvania Ballet Orchestra to great effect in all three works. He caught the romance of the Minkus, the profundity of the Schubert and the glamour of the Tchaikovsky.

The Pennsylvania Ballet returns to the more spacious setting of the Academy of Music for “Jewels” May 10-13. Visit www.paballet.org for ticket information. You can contact NOTEWORTHY at Michael-caruso@comcast.net. To read more of NOTEWORTHY, visit www.chestnuthilllocal.com/Arts/Noteworthy.

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