The solo voice ensemble of Les Canards Chantants will be accompanying Piffaro at its performance of “A French Noel” on Saturday, Dec. 22, at 7:30 p.m. in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill.

by Michael Caruso

Piffaro, Philadelphia’s internationally acclaimed Renaissance Band, will present “A French Noel” Saturday, Dec. 22, at 7:30 p.m. in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, its local home base. Joining the members of the band will be Les Canards Chantants, the solo voice ensemble, and Mark Jaster & Sabrina Mandell from Happenstance Theater.

The program includes music composed or published by Thomas Crecquillon, Jacques Moderne, Jean Mouton, Jean de Castro, and Jean Maillard. Members of Piffaro arranged the music for performance.

Through its playing and singing, Piffaro’s artistic co-directors Joan Kimball and Robert Wiemken hope to “escape today’s discordant tones for a holiday in harmony with nature. Ethereal voices, sweet sounds of recorders, dulcians and lutes, and pastoral scenes from a rare Noel manuscript brought to life in ‘tableaux vivants’ by master pantomimists all combine to transport the audiences to Christmas Eve in the countryside of 16th century France.”

For more information, visit or call 215-2358469.


St. Paul’s Episcopal Church celebrated Chestnut Hill’s most treasured Christmas tradition with its 37th annual Festival of Lessons and Carols Sunday, Dec. 16th. With more than 500 in attendance, interim choir director Steven Gearhart and interim organist James Batt respectively conducted and accompanied the best chosen and performed roster of music for Lesson and Carols I can remember hearing at the local parish – or anywhere else, for that matter.

Going on now for one-and-a-half centuries, Lessons and Carols is the Christmastime version of Choral Evensong. It is a service that connects the Church of England, its inceptor, with all the provinces of the worldwide Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is the national member.

Interspersed between nine readings from both the Old and New Testaments are a series of anthems and carols intended to heighten the meaning of those selections from Scripture. Each recalls the biblical narrative of humanity’s fall from grace, the promise God made to the Jewish people, and then, in the Christian tradition, the fulfillment of those promises in the divine and human person of Jesus Christ.

The particular triumph of this year’s installment was the perfection of Gearhart’s choices of choral works. Philip Ledger’s arrangement of the “Sussex Carol” set the stage for the Christmas story. Colin Mawby’s “Adam Lay Ybounden” recalled the effects of Adam and Eve’s commitment of the original sin. “People Look East,” arranged by Barry Ferguson, retold God’s promise of redemption through a palpable sense of anticipation. John Rutter’s “What Sweet Music” delineated the emotion behind the hope for a Prince of Peace while Harold Darke’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” evoked humanity’s desperate need for just such a Messiah.

David Willcocks’ arrangement of “Gabriel’s Message” came directly on the heels of the reading of the Archangel Gabriel’s Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary that she would bear the Messiah, touchingly marking her unique role in God’s plan of salvation. “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly,” also arranged by Willcocks, enhanced the story of that virgin birth, while “O Little Town of Bethlehem” recalled the shepherds’ response to Gabriel’s special announcement to them on its very night. Joseph Flummerfelt’s arrangement of “What Is This Lovely Fragrance” retold the visit of the three magi from the east on Epiphany, and Morten Lauridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium” (O great mystery) rounded out the musical enhancements with its heavenly description of the mystery of Christ’s birth in a stable.

Not a single piece of choral music Steven Gearhart chose for the service was out of place, and not a single one received a performance that was anything less than sublime. The parish’s adult and children’s choirs sang with a technical assuredness inspired by interpretive artistry that hit the spiritual mark unfailingly Sunday evening. And James Batt’s accompaniment at the church’s splendid Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ was equally exemplary.


Charlene Angelini conducted the musical forces of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia Sunday afternoon, Dec. 9. The concert took place in the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, located on Logan Circle along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and drew nearly one thousand music lovers.

Angelini directly oversees the Cathedral Basilica Choir, the Archdiocesan Choir, and the Archdiocesan Children’s Choir. The first-named ensemble is an elite group of choristers who regularly sing at the Cathedral’s Masses, the second is a broadly based chorus of singers drawn from all the parishes in the Archdiocese, and the third hopefully is preparing vocalists for the other two.

Angelini and the choirs were well supported by the Cathedral Basilica’s organist, Mark Loria, and its regular contingent of instrumentalists on strings, brass and timpani. Establishing the breadth of the Archdiocese and its musical institutions, she chose a program that spanned many centuries of choral repertoire. Proving its depth, the entire program was sung and played with a surpassing consistency and a high level of quality from start to finish of its 90-minute-plus length.

The Cathedral Basilica Choir was heard to memorable advantage in works such as “I Wonder as I Wander” by John Jacob Niles arranged by Steve Pilkington, Eriks Esenwalds’ “Magnificat,” Jan Sweelinck’s “Hodie Christus Natus Est” and John Tavener’s “The Lamb.”

The Esenwalds is particularly difficult. Its dissonances are closely voiced and their resolutions are often long-delayed, yet under Angelini’s expert direction the choir held true to the immaculate tuning required for such music to proffer its unique, haunting beauty, recalling the wintery northern lights of the composer’s Latvian homeland.

I hasten to add that the Niles, Sweelinck and Tavener works were no less ably performed. Angelini and her choristers caught the exuberance of the Sweelinck, the winning gentility of the Niles, and the hushed angularity of the Tavener.

Perhaps the afternoon’s most encouraging portions were those featuring the Archdiocesan Children’s Choir. Although small in number, the quality of the choir’s overall tone and its powerful projection out into the vast expanses of the Cathedral Basilica were impressive. This was especially true when the choir sang from the loft at the back of the church — where the building’s architects intended the choir to be placed. Danielle Molan’s work with the young vocalists was admirable. The sound wasn’t huge, but it was beautifully blended and easily projected.

Angelini efficaciously showed her prowess molding the singing of the larger Archdiocesan Choir into a unified whole during its several performances Sunday afternoon. Mark Loria’s fine work at the Cathedral’s pipe organ merely highlighted its limited state of usability.

Most challenging of all, though, it fell to Angelini to dispel the countless clouds of scandal surrounding the Roman Catholic Church. She did this by reminding everyone involved in it, from top to bottom, that its principal mission is the proclamation of its faith in the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, at Christmas. Through music and with the help of a bevy of fine musicians, she met that challenge splendidly on Dec. 9.

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