Sterling Baca (left) and Lillian DiPiazza star in the Pennsylvania Ballet’s “Romeo and Juliet” as the titular roles, respectively. (Photo by Alexander Iziliaev)

by Michael Caruso

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, was a beehive of musical activity this past weekend. It hosted its first “Five Fridays: Concerts for Community” Oct. 12. Then on Sunday, Oct. 14, it was the site of a Choral Evensong featuring its Adult Choir.

The Friday evening concert’s featured soloist was pianist Henry Kramer. The young Astral Artist was heard in a program that opened with two piano transcriptions from Franz Liszt’s oratorio, “Christus.” These were followed by Claude Debussy’s modal Suite “Bergamasque” and virtuosic “L’isle Joyeuse.” After intermission, Kramer played Franz Schubert’s Fantasy in C major, “Der Wanderer.”

Kramer, an alumnus of both the Juilliard School and Yale University, employed a deft touch for voicing and coloring to achieve a near-orchestral palette of timbres in the Suite “Bergamasque.” The Prelude recalled the styles of French Baroque composers Jean Philippe Rameau and Francois Couperin – tart and elegant. The Minuet danced with a beguiling quirkiness while the “Clair de lune” set a dreamlike trance. The Passepied was, indeed, a balletic finale.

Like Debussy, himself, Kramer combined the sonic impressions of an island of pleasure within the framework of a pyrotechnical display piece worthy of Liszt in “L’isle Joyeuse.”

Kramer showed the depth of his musicality in the Schubert. He elicited a singing tone from the Church’s vintage Steinway & Sons grand piano, projecting the composer’s peerless lyricism within a securely molded structure delivered with impressive technical brilliance. Once again referencing Liszt, one could hear within the pages of the Schubert Fantasy the inspiration for the Hungarian master’s own Sonata in B minor.

For more information about Five Friday’s 2018-19 season visit www.fivefridays.org

CHORAL EVENSONG

Although the principal scores of any setting of Anglican Choral Evensong are usually those of the “Magnificat” and “Nunc Dimittis,” this time around it was the anthem sung at the Offertory that stole the musical show. Without slighting the quality of the “Magnificat” and “Nunc Dimittis” taken from Charles Villiers Stanford’s Evening Service in G, it was Gerald Finzi’s anthem, “Lo, the full final sacrifice,” that made the afternoon’s most indelible impression.

With interim choral director Steven Gearhart leading the Adult Choir of St. Paul’s Church, here well accompanied at the Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ by interim organist James Batt, the anthem was revealed to be a major choral work. Its full poetic text was set out through a plethora of developmental and contrapuntal techniques that delivered the words by enhancing their emotional impact. By carefully chosen emphases, Finzi highlighted the most telling phrases through music of impressive power, touching delicacy and focused intensity. The anthem received the service’s finest singing.

The two works by Stanford made a perfect pairing. The “Magnificat” featured an ongoing soprano solo of great exuberant beauty while the baritone solo in the “Nunc Dimittis” spoke in quiet, intimate terms of reflective peace. Oftentimes composers reprise the setting of the closing phrase, “Glory be to the Father,” from the former for the latter. Stanford didn’t here. The “Magnificat” closed with great brilliance while the “Nunc Dimittis” drew to its conclusion with sweet lyricism. A stroke of genius – sung with equal accomplishment.

TRAGIC ROMANCE

Pennsylvania Ballet opened its 2018-19 season with a production of “Romeo and Juliet.” Featuring Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography set to Sergei Prokofiev’s score, it runs through Oct. 21 in the newly refurbished Academy of Music.

MacMillan’s version of William Shakespeare’s classic romantic tragedy premiered Feb. 9, 1965, by London’s Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. It now replaces John Cranko’s choreography of the same story, which had previously been Pennsylvania Ballet’s staple. Although neither qualifies as “classical ballet” in the sense of the style employed during the 19th century, MacMillan’s adheres more closely to classical traditions whereas Cranko’s was obviously influenced by touches of modern dance. Both work well onstage, although I prefer the MacMillan version for its clarity of line and simplicity of narration.

The current incarnation boasts scenery and costumes designed by Paul Andrews, lighting by Brad Fields, and staging by Julie Lincoln. All the pieces come together to present the viewer with a sumptuous feast for the eyes. Colors and textures provide a handy guide for which group of dancers is either Capulets or Montagues and their trains. The broad and deep expanses of the Academy of Music’s stage bustle with activity and bristle with excitement. And all those brilliantly attired townspeople move about with purpose and design to recreate a Renaissance city verging on an explosion of family warfare.

Dancing the title roles Saturday evening were Lillian DiPiazza as Juliet and Sterling Baca as Romeo. Their performances marked a signal achievement for the company and a personal milestone for each individually and as a pair.

DiPiazza began the evening as a childish girl still playing with dolls and ended it with the emotional maturity of a woman willing to choose death over life without the man she has come to love above and beyond anything and everything else. If ever there was a character in ballet that delineates how women have suffered at the hands of a society incapable of giving them their due, that character is Juliet.

DiPiazza brought all of this to life through dancing of pristine purity of line, precision of gesture, elegance of movement and economy of means. She made the most of her point work to express her intense feelings and made the smallest of moves reveal the depths of her love for Romeo.

In the role of literature’s supreme paragon of dream-come-true lover, Sterling Baca proved to be that very icon Saturday evening before a packed Academy of Music. His dancing radiated athletic prowess, muscular control, focused bravura, dazzling leaps ending in silent landings and a delicacy of partnering that established a new standard in his career here in Philadelphia. And best of all, he came closer than ever before to abandoning the false virtue of understated mime acting in favor of a full blown commitment to a passionate embrace of theatrical expressivity, not just through his face but with his body.

Many members of the large cast also delivered expert performances, including Aleksey Babayev as a truculent Tybalt, Albert Gordon as Mercutio, Jack Sprance as Benvolio and Jessica Kilpatrick as Juliet’s nurse.

Beatrice Jona Affron led the Pennsylvania Ballet Orchestra with style and authority. One sometimes forgets that the acoustics of the Academy of Music were actually designed for an orchestra in the pit supporting action onstage rather than as a concert hall with the players on that stage. One forgets that point only until one hears the house used as it was intended to be used. The sound was scintillating due to Affron’s excellent conducting.

A local note: Germantown resident Oksana Maslova will dance the part of Juliet Friday, Oct. 19, at 7:30 p.m. For ticket information, visit www.paballet.org

You can contact NOTEWORTHY at Michael-caruso@comcast.net. To read more of NOTEWORTHY visit www.chestnuthilllocal.com/Arts/Noteworthy

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