by Michael Caruso
The Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Chestnut Hill, ushered in the new liturgical year with its 32nd annual Advent Procession Sunday, Dec. 2, the first Sunday of Advent. Music director Erik Meyer presided over a program of music that included works by Hugo Distler, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Norman Luboff, Caroline Mallonee, Franz Biebl, Edward Bairstow, Paul Manz and Simon Preston.
Advent is the penitential season preparing Christians for the celebration of the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day. Its four Sundays recall the Old Testament prophecies of the coming of a Messiah. The Church of England’s traditions of Lessons and Carols began in the middle of the 19th century and continue today in the Episcopal Church, the American province of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Biblical readings are enhanced by choral anthems and congregational carols that convey the sense of anticipation for the long-awaited Redeemer.
Sunday afternoon’s finest renditions were those given Bairstow’s “Let all mortal flesh keep silence” and Manz’s “Peace be unto you.” The former was sung in the choir stalls at the front of the church within the sanctuary while the latter was sung at the foot of high altar at the far eastern wall of the sanctuary.
In both works ensemble was excellent, pitch was immaculate, diction was crisp, dynamics were broadly based and securely projected, and phrasing was eloquent, assuring that each score received an interpretation worthy of its beauty.
Meyer bookended the service with exemplary renditions of two solo organ works. At the start, he caught the inventiveness of Hugo Distler’s “Partita: Savior of the nations, come!” At the close he offered the quirky dissonances and surprising finale of Simon Preston’s “Alleluyas” with style and panache.
The Vox Renaissance Consort will present “Renaissance Noel” Friday, Dec. 7, at 8 p.m. in the Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Chestnut Hill. Costumed singers and instrumentalists will perform traditional carols. Visit VoxAmaDeus.org or call 610-688-2800.
Tempesta di Mare and the Gallery Choir of the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill will perform the 1742 Dublin original version of Handel’s “Messiah” Friday, Dec. 7, at 8 p.m. in Chestnut Hill Presbyterian. Visit tempestadimare.org or call 215-755-8776.
Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia will present “A Feast of Carols” Saturday, Dec. 8, at 5 p.m. in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill. Visit mcchorus.org
Music director Charlene Angelini will conduct the Choir of the Roman Catholic Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, the Philadelphia Archdiocesan Choir, and the Archdiocesan Children’s Choir in “Sounds of the Season” Sunday, Dec. 9, at 3 p.m. Music by Anesen, Tavener, Davies, Esenvalds, Pilkington, Sweelinck, Petersen, Willcocks, Wall and Ijames will be performed, accompanied by brass and strings. For more information visit cathedralphilaconcerts.org
Music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin returned to the podium of the Philadelphia Orchestra Nov. 29 & 30 and Dec. 1 to lead a program that included Johannes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Opus 83, and Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Opus 70. The young maestro brought with him his patented high-octane level of energy and elicited some of the most exciting playing from the Philadelphians heard this season.
Along with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Opus 30, Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto is the “biggest” work in that form in the active repertoire. From the time of its premiere in 1881, with the composer as soloist, it has occupied an almost mystical place in the pantheon of great piano concerti. Its four movements make it one of the longest in the repertoire, its technical demands make it one of the most difficult to play, and its transcendent spirituality make it one of the most daunting to interpret.
All the greatest pianists have performed it with the Philadelphians under the late Eugene Ormandy and have brought something distinctive to their renditions. For instance, Artur Rubinstein was 10 years old when Brahms died. His music was “modern” to the great Polish virtuoso. Rubinstein brought to his performances of the Second Concerto a living link with the romantic epoch during which it was written. Rudolf Serkin, the great German trained pianist who headed the Curtis Institute of Music, emphasized the composer’s connection with the classical traditions of Beethoven and Mozart. The Chilean master Claudio Arrau offered Olympian grandeur. Vladimir Horowitz dazzled his listeners with his pyrotechnical wizardry while Van Cliburn swept them away with the sheer beauty of his tone.
Saturday evening’s soloist was the ever-popular Emanuel Ax. He and Nezet-Seguin collaborated for a rendition that struck an impressive balance between classical probity and romantic lyricism.
In the Dvorak, Nezet-Seguin failed to elevate the rather mundane quality of the composer’s thematic material in the first and second movements. But he and the Philadelphians caught fire for their playing of the third and fourth. The music sang with Bohemian rusticity and crackled with hearty energy.
When Pennsylvania Ballet opens its annual production of “The Nutcracker” Friday, Dec. 7, at 7 p.m. in the Academy of Music, one of the principal dancers performing the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy will be Roxborough resident Oksana Maslova. For the Ukrainian-born ballerina, this will be her third season dancing the part with Pennsylvania Ballet.
“The Sugar Plum Fairy must sparkle with joy,” she told me during a break in the company’s rehearsals last week. “You must keep her spirit bright for everyone around you onstage and for the audiences.”
Not having been trained in the traditions of George Balanchine that inspired the creation of the Pennsylvania Ballet and that characterize Balanchine’s choreography for “Nutcracker,” in particular, has proved a challenge for Maslova. “At first,” she explained, “I found it hard to understand the logic behind it. I didn’t know him in person and didn’t learn to dance ballet from him. But when you love ballet like I do, you find your way to the joy in it.”
Essaying the all-important role of Dr. Drosselmeyer, the magician who sets the evening’s fantasy in motion, will be company veteran Ian Hussey. “I love dancing Drosselmeyer,” he told me, “because it’s a role that’s interesting to develop. There’s so much acting, which is very different from most of the roles I perform. And it’s a challenging role for me.
“He’s far older than I am, and so I have to develop an entirely different body language to portray him. He’s unique among the guests at the Christmas party. He stands out from all the other adults, and the kids love him because he is something of a magician. He makes the evening an adventure for the kids. He’s a little scary because we don’t know his intentions. But we do know that Marie’s parents love him.”
Hussey added that the role is especially challenging because of its many props and the need to be able to handle them in a split second of time.
For ticket information, visit paballet.org
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