by Michael Caruso
Although St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, is entering the final stages of its search for a music director to replace Zachary Hemenway, the parish nonetheless celebrated the traditional feast day of St. Jerome Sunday, Sept. 30, with a Choral Evensong. Standing in until a new music director is named were interim choral director Steven Gearhart and interim organist James Batt. Together they respectively conducted and accompanied the Church’s Choir and Choristers in a program of music highlighted by the “Magnificat” of “Nunc Dimittis” from Herbert Howells’ “Collegium Regale.”
St. Jerome, who lived from 347-410 A.D. and is acclaimed a “Doctor of the Church” by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches and the Anglican Communion, is best known for his translation of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek scriptures into Latin. Known as the “Vulgate,” it remained the official Bible of the Church of Rome until the 16th century Council of Trent updated it.
The afternoon’s singing got underway at the Introit with a lovely rendition of Philip Stanford’s unaccompanied “God be in my head.” Gearhart elicited singing that glowed with tonal beauty, breathed with unforced lyricism and offered a delicate yet focused delivery of its touching text.
Both the “Magnificat” (“My soul doth magnify the Lord”) and the “Nunc Dimittis” (“Lord, now lettest thy servant depart in peace”) are unadorned yet expressive renderings of two seminal selections from the New Testament. The first details the Blessed Virgin Mary’s joy at the Visitation that the Archangel Gabriel has revealed to her that she will bear the long-awaited Messiah. The second recalls St. Simeon’s gratitude at having been vouchsafed the blessing of having lived to see the Messiah come into the world as a helpless infant.
I found Gearhart’s tempo in the former too slow for my tastes, but he picked up the pace in the latter. The singing throughout both, however, was expertly modulated, evenly balanced, well delineated structurally and effectively focused on the texts. The “Nunc Dimittis” opened with a splendidly sung solo by tenor Kevin Schneider. Shunning an inappropriate operatic vibrato, his straight-tone vocalism was evocative of ancient traditions harking back to medieval plainsong.
The anthem at the Offertory was William Harris’ “Behold, the tabernacle of God.” A work of traditional yet imaginative tonality, it received the afternoon’s finest interpretation: intense yet sensitive.
As a result of certain oddities in the program schedule of the Philadelphia Orchestra, I’ve had the opportunity to hear and re-hear certain parts of the ensemble’s repertoire. Over the span of concerts performed Sept. 14, 22 & 29, I’ve heard music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin conduct Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Nico Muhly’s “Liar” Suite from his opera “Marnie” twice.
Oddly – and unfairly – enough, the most unusual work from the three programs was Franz Berwald’s Symphony No. 3 in C major, and we only heard that once. And most outrageously, the greatest piece in all three concerts was also heard only once — Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7. What were they thinking, dare I ask?
Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony turned out to be his last in that most classical of all orchestral forms. Although lovers of his music waited for the promised Eighth Symphony to show up for more than three decades after the premiere of the Seventh in 1924, for whatever reasons the Finnish master never released it. The classical music world was rife with rumors that he was busily at work on it throughout the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s until he died in 1957. Those rumors might very well have been true. All the same, no Eighth Symphony ever presented itself, leaving the Seventh to mark Sibelius’ final symphonic effort.
But what a final testament it is. One can certainly understand a composer having intimidated himself with such a work of perfection. Cast in only one movement, the Seventh surveys a vast array of developmental techniques voiced in a highly chromatic yet securely discernible tonality. Eschewing the instrumental extravagances of contemporaries such as Strauss and Stravinsky, Sibelius’ orchestration in the Seventh Symphony is as sparklingly clear as theirs is murky disguised as dazzle. The balance he achieved in the scoring of the Seventh between the sections of the orchestra – strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion – could and should be a textbook example for all subsequent composers who wish to deliver the substance of their music through simplicity of sonic style.
Although in the past I have found myself questioning Nezet-Seguin’s ability to strike a balance between those various sections of the Philadelphia Orchestra, I came away from the concert of Saturday, Sept. 22, in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall with nothing but “blown away “ admiration for his interpretation of Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony. The strings shimmered with a Nordic chill, the woodwinds sang with the purity of tuning of the finest Anglican cathedral choir, the brass declaimed with the martial splendor of the ancient legions of Imperial Rome, and the percussion accentuated the work of the other three groupings with scintillating rhythmic precision.
Over the course of the two concerts in which I heard Nezet-Seguin lead the Philadelphians in Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances – a score dedicated to them and their music director at the time, Eugene Ormandy, in 1941 – the maestro’s interpretation improved dramatically. Although the first rendition bristled with energy, it lacked the throbbing romance of melancholic nostalgia that permeates everything the Russian master ever composed. By the time of the second performance Sept. 29, Nezet-Seguin had found the portal into his own understanding of such feelings so efficaciously that memories of Ormandy, himself, were revived.
The opposite took place regarding Lisa Batiashvili’s rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. Whereas her first performance Sept. 22 was superficially pretty and reasonably enthusiastic, her second Sept. 29 betrayed boredom.
And Berwald’s Third Symphony? Composed in 1845, it deserves to be an active part of the early romantic repertoire. It received a stellar interpretation from Nezet-Seguin and the Philadelphians.