by Michael Caruso
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, hosted its final Choral Evensong of the season Sunday, April 29. The event served to mark three milestones: it was the Fifth Sunday of Eastertide, it was the culmination of the Church’s annual Festival of Three Choirs, and it was the final Choral Evensong for Zachary Hemenway, the parish’s music director who will be leaving to take up a similar position in Seattle, Washington.
This year’s three-part chorus was comprised of St. Paul’s own combined Adult and Children’s Choirs, plus the choirs of St. Thomas, Whitemarsh, and Christ Church, Alexandria, Virginia. Hemenway accompanied at St. Paul’s magnificent Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ. Scott Atchison, music director of the Peach Tree Road United Methodist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, was the Festival’s guest director and conducted Sunday’s Evensong.
The principal musical works of the service were the “Magnificat” and “Nunc Dimittis” from Harold Friedell’s Evening Service in F. Although Friedell chose to employ almost no counterpoint – setting one vocal range against the other(s) – he did achieve a notable degree of textural variety by placing fully accompanied passages against those that were completely unaccompanied by the organ as well as by requesting a vast array of different registrations from the organ, itself, as it supports the choral singing.
With the combined ensembles numbering as many as 90 choristers, Atchison elicited singing that ranged from mighty fortissimos to hushed pianissimos. The dynamic variety was especially efficacious during the singing of the “Nunc Dimittis,” which began lightly but then achieved powerful choral declamations at the text, “To be a light to the Gentiles.” Diction was remarkably clean, as were blend and balance.
Herbert Howells’ “Sing for the morning’s joy” was the anthem at the Offertory. The score offers moments of blazing light opposed to others of threatening darkness, yet Atchison held it all together with a firm yet sensitive hand, drawing out exemplary expressivity from three choirs unaccustomed to singing together but here offering the smoothly modulated tones of an expert professional chorus.
Hemenway’s playing throughout the service was as stellar as one might expect from a magnificent organist intimately acquainted with the instrument he’s playing. His improvised postlude, however, soared well beyond that compliment. While maintaining a remarkably secure through line of thematic and harmonic development, Hemenway explored and exploited the kaleidoscope of tones, textures and timbres that mark the pipe organ at St. Paul’s Church as one of the region’s most spectacular musical instruments. It was a consummate performance, both technically and musically.
PIFFARO ON THE HILL
Piffaro, Philadelphia’s Renaissance Band, will close out its season with a series of concerts entitled “The Polish Connection.” The instrumentalists of Piffaro will be joined in concert by the vocalists of Peregrina. Performances are set for Friday, May 11, at 7:30 p.m. in the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral; Saturday, May 12, at 7:30 p.m. in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill; and Sunday, May 13, at 3 p.m. in the Emmanuel Church, Highlands, Delaware.
Players and singers will look back in time to perform the music of medieval Poland: knights raising their voices before battle, cloistered nuns singing behind convent walls, virtuosic musicians performing for royalty at the Polish-Lithuanian court, and the vibrant songs of the Polish people.
Piffaro co-artistic directors, Joan Kimball and Robert Wiemken, have said, “The revival of early music performance over the past half century or so has probed deeply into many corners of European lands and repertoires, and even followed Europeans to the New World, parts of Asia and beyond. However, central European composers and their works, including those of Poland, have been unjustifiably neglected, and this music is all-too-rarely heard in the United States. Our program will illuminate the culture of the lands between the Baltic and Black Seas, from the early Polish state under Duke Boleslaw the Brave to the golden age of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.”
The Ensemble Peregrina was founded in 1987 by the Polish singer and musicologist Agnieszka Budzinska-Bennett in Basel, Switzerland. The ensemble’s main interest lies in the early polyphonies and monophonic repertoires of the Notre Dame School and Aquitanian “nova cantica.” The ensemble’s name, “Peregrina,” means “wanderer” and alludes to the transmission of music and ideas throughout Europe throughout the Middle Ages.
For more information call 215-235-8469 or visit www.piffaro.org.
BAROQUE AND MORE
Nicholas McGegan guest conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra May 4 & 5 and took the ensemble on a tonal tour of 18th and early 19th centuries’ music. Three of the five works are original to the Baroque and Classical eras, while the other two are 20th century re-interpretations of the older styles. All five reminded one and all that the Baroque and Classical epochs are a treasure-trove of masterpieces.
Saturday evening’s concert was bookended by those two modern turns on Baroque music. The program opened with Ottorino Respighi’s Suite No. 1 from “Ancient Airs and Dances for the Lute” and closed with Igor Stravinsky’s Suite from “Pulcinella.” In between were George Frideric Handel’s Organ Concerto in F major, Pietro Locatelli’s Concerto Grosso in F major and Gioachino Rossini’s Overture to his opera, “La Cenerentola.”
It was the Rossini that received the evening’s finest performance. With a reduced-in-size ensemble onstage, McGegan elicited playing that was characterized by transparent textures, fleet tempi, bracing rhythms and expertly modulated dynamics to capture the opera’s glittering rendering of the Cinderella fairytale. His command over the legendary “Rossini crescendo” was breathtaking.
Peter Richard Conte was the soloist in the Handel. Conte is the longtime principal organist of the Wanamaker organ at the Center City Macy’s department store and organist/choirmaster at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church just off Logan Circle along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. He managed to uncover a brightly voiced Baroque organ within the vast array of registrations in Verizon Hall’s Fred J. Cooper pipe organ and gave this flawless score a stunning rendition.
McGegan caught the delicacy of timbres with which Respighi recalled the music of Baroque Italy through 20th century instruments. McGegan did the same with the tart tones and sharp dissonances through which Stravinsky re-imagined the music of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi.
The least successful outing of this musical journey back in time was the reading given the Locatelli. The quality of the performance was fatally marred by the disappointing playing of concertmaster David Kim, the score’s principal soloist. His approach to “period performance practices” seemed to be a matter of playing slightly under pitch with little or no vibrato.
Pennsylvania Ballet will conclude its 2017-18 season with George Balanchine’s “Jewels” May 10-13 in the Academy of Music. The ballet’s three movements are “Emeralds,” “Rubies” and “Diamonds” and are set to music by Gabriel Faure, Igor Stravinsky and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
I had the chance to sit in on a rehearsal of “Emeralds” and watched former New York City Ballet soloist Elyse Bourne “set” Balanchine’s choreography on such local favorites as Germantown resident Oksana Maslova, Arian Molina Soca, Mayara Pineiro and Sterling Baca. Perhaps most noteworthy of all, these performances will mark the culmination of James Ihde’s 25-year career with the company. For those of you with a bent for nostalgia, this final production of the season is a “must see.”
For more information, visit www.pabllet.org.
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