by Michael Caruso
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, marked the ancient Feast of All Souls with a service of Commemoration of All Faithful Departed on Sunday, Nov. 4. Heard within the context of the Anglican liturgy of remembrance for the souls of those who have died, Steven Gearhart led the parish choir with James Batt at the church’s Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ in a splendid performance of Gabriel Faure’s setting of the Latin Mass for the Dead.
Faure, the French romantic composer who lived from 1845 until 1924, composed his “Requiem Mass” between 1887 and 1890. Although it well predates the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and the Armistice that eventually brought it to a close, this most intimate of musical Requiems seems to suit the somber mood of remembering all those millions of lives lost in one of the most unnecessary of all major wars.
It seems especially fitting as we Americans pause to consider the repercussions of the spiraling violence in our own country that the Armistice that brought the “War to End All Wars” went into effect 100 years ago this Sunday, Nov. 11, at 11 a.m. And equally so that a local parish should remember the loss of all those who have died as victims of violence of any and all kinds.
Faure’s “Requiem Mass” recalls the piety of medieval France through an inspired use of Gregorian chant as the melodic and harmonic foundation of his entire score. The plainsong contours of the choral parts and the modal harmonies that result from Faure’s supple counterpoint evoke a world of intercessions offered up within the context of cloistered lives spent in contemplative prayer.
Gearhart elicited singing from his entire choir that was seamlessly blended and expressively shaped. The soprano section’s singing was especially praiseworthy, ringing with the clarity of boy trebles but with the tonal amplitude only the voices of adult women can offer. Soprano Anais Naharro-Murphy sang the beloved aria, “Pie Jesu,” with creamy lyricism while baritone Franklin Phillips brought “gravitas” to both “Domine, Jesu Christe” and “Libera Me.”
Although St. Paul’s musical establishment has been working without a full-time music director since the end of June, you’d be hard-pressed to notice any diminution of quality in the performance this time around. Gearhart and Batt brought together their complementary talents to offer a stellar rendition of one of the repertoire’s most enduring masterpieces in a moving display of the universality of grief and hope.
The second full weekend of November offers many musical opportunities for Chestnut Hillers and their neighbors. For starters, the Jasper String Quartet opens its 2018-19 season of chamber music concerts Thursday, Nov. 8, at 7:30 p.m. in the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting. The program features Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s arrangement of J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” for string trio. For more information, visit JasperChamberConcerts.com
The very next evening, Friday, Nov. 9, at 8 p.m. the Chestnut Street Singers will perform a program entitled “We Who Believe” in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. The program includes music by Barnwell, Britten, Favero, Hearne and Dunphy. For more information, visit chestnutstreetsingers.org
That very same evening, also at 8 p.m., Variant 6 presents a program entitled “Madrigals Beyond Italy” featuring works by Monteverdi, Gesualdo, Strozzi, Schutz, Lully and Charpentier. The concert will be performed at the Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, Whitemarsh, in Flourtown. For more information, visit variantsix.com
“Five Fridays” at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, continues Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m. with cellist Thomas Mesa and pianist Natalia Kasaryan in recital. Visit fivefridays.org
Lyric Fest presents “Sparks and Embers: Reflections on Beginnings and Endings” Saturday, Nov. 10, at 4 p.m. in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. The program includes a world premiere by Benjamin Boyle. For more information, visit lyricfest.org
St. Thomas Church’s music director, Michael Smith, and the parish choir will perform Saturday, Nov. 10, at 5 p.m. in Chestnut Hill’s Woodmere Art Museum. The program is entitled “Remembering: Landscapes and Memory” and was inspired by paintings in Woodmere’s galleries. The roster of music includes scores composed by Sametz, Stopford, Weir, Messiaen, Philips, Tavener, Lang, Lauridsen, Barber and Paulus. For more information, visit woodmereartmuseum.org
The Roman Catholic Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul will present the Westminster Williamson Voices Sunday, Nov. 11, at 3 p.m. Conducted by James Jordan, the program will include two new works by Williamson Voices alumnus Thomas LaVoy: “The Dreams That Remain” and another score commemorating World War I on the centenary of its conclusion Nov. 11, 1918, at 11 a.m. For more information, visit cathedralphilaconcerts.org
Following the critical and popular success of the opening of its 2018-19 season with “Romeo and Juliet,” Pennsylvania Ballet returns to the boards with a trio of modern ballets. The company will perform the program Nov. 8-11 in the Merriam Theater.
The roster of works includes Jiri Kylian’s “Petite Mort” plus world premieres by company member Russell Ducker and Gallim Dance founder/artistic director Andrea Miller. The program is a showpiece for the company’s principal dancers, including Germantown’s Oksana Maslova.
One of the standouts in “Romeo and Juliet” was Colorado native and principal dancer Sterling Baca, seen as Romeo. I had the chance to talk with Baca just prior to a rehearsal of “Petite Mort” at the Ballet’s studios on North Broad Street. Home-schooled with his sister, his interest in ballet was preceded by activities in nearly every sport with the odd exception (for Colorado) of skiing. But as a result of his interest in musical theater, Baca’s parents took him to see a production of “The Nutcracker.”
“When I saw all the things the men were doing and the beautiful girls, I was blown away,” he said. “I had always brought more finesse than power to sports, and I always enjoyed the performance aspect of it, as well, so I took to ballet right away.”
In his early teens, Baca began spending summers in New York City at the intensive summer camps run by American Ballet Theater. These sessions gave him the chance to determine for himself just how good he was and could become rather than depend on the opinions of others. He was offered a scholarship to continue his studies in New York. A telling fact for his future: one of the principal dancers at ABT at the time was Angel Corella, who would eventually become the artistic director of Pennsylvania Ballet. Corella expressed admiration for the young dancer’s talent from their first encounters
“I was only 13 years old,” Baca recalled. “I knew that I wanted to be a ballet dancer, but I wasn’t sure about making the total commitment.”
Baca eventually took the leap of faith and joined ABT’s apprentice company with a scholarship from its Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. When he turned 18, he was offered a contract at ABT.
After five-plus seasons with ABT, Baca’s deepening talent brought an offer from Corella of a contract as a principal dancer with Pennsylvania Ballet.
“My jaw dropped,” Baca admitted. “I couldn’t believe it, but he said that he was serious. So I went through the process of making a decision. New York City is what it is, but the artistic opportunities for an individual dancer are so great here. And I really liked Philadelphia. I almost felt as though I had already been here, even though I hadn’t. So I decided to accept the offer.”
In his three seasons with Pennsylvania Ballet, Baca has danced leading roles in as broad and deep a repertoire as any young dancer in the ballet world. His charismatic performances have elicited serious critical acclaim and explosive audience response.
This is one of an ongoing series of profiles of the principal dancers with the region’s leading dance troupe, Pennsylvania Ballet. Up next: a young Chestnut Hill dancer, Lily Mehta, who will be performing in the company’s annual production of “The Nutcracker” in the Academy of Music Dec. 7-31.
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