by Michael Caruso
Due to its overwhelming popularity, Donald Nally and The Crossing presented their annual holiday concert, “The Crossing @ Christmas,” twice this season. The first performance was given Friday, Dec. 14, in the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square. The second was sung closer to home: in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. Both drew audiences that packed their respective churches. Both were part of the “Jeffrey Dinsmore Memorial Concerts” in honor of Dinsmore, a late member of the choir.
One of the unavoidable risks of presenting concerts of contemporary music that include commissioned world premieres is the possibility that said world premiere won’t be ready by the time the concert is scheduled to take place. Although it hasn’t happened often during the decade-plus life of The Crossing, it has occasionally occurred.
Usually the absent selection on the program is a small work that can be easily replaced or simply skipped over. This time around, however, the not-quite-finished score was to be the concert’s entire offering. Gavin Bryars’s “A Native Hill” was set to be not just the centerpiece of the 2018 installment of “The Crossing @ Christmas.” It was intended to be the very program, itself, lock-stock-and-barrel.
Based on a text by Wendell Barry and donated to Nally and The Crossing by the composer, “A Native Hill” was conceived as a sprawling tonal poem to the earth on which humanity lives. As it turned out, Bryars was not able to finish the complete 12-movement score in time for The Crossing’s December concerts. Instead, Nally and the choir performed its first five moments and scheduled the premiere of the entire work for June of 2019.
Those five movements – “But the sense of the past,” “The Path,” “Sea Level,” “The Pool” and “The Road” – show Bryars in complete command of a musical language both challenging and accessible. His setting of the lyrics is masterful in each of the five sections currently extant, allowing the listener to hear their stark beauty as words within the context of the music. His occasional use of astringent dissonance is employed not just to achieve provocation but just as often to elicit pointed nostalgia. And his setting of the choral texture, sparingly enhanced by solo voices, is characterized by winning delicacy.
Nally and The Crossing sang the first five moments of “A Native Hill” with a level of technical command usually associated with music situated securely within the ensemble’s repertoire, not hot off the presses. That, of course, is one of the characteristics that has helped build the reputation of Nally and The Crossing as the nation’s leading specialists in beautiful contemporary choral music and that has enabled them to win a coveted Grammy Award for Bryars’ “Fifth Century.” More important still, Nally and the choir invested their rendition of “A Native Hill” with a burning intensity matched only by a touching sweetness that made you feel that you’ve known this music all along and have just been waiting to hear it performed “live” in concert.
While most choral conductors would have been entirely undone by the prospect of having to construct fully half of a program out of thin air, Nally proved himself not to be anything like most conductors. Judith Weir’s “Vertue” and “a blue true dream of sky,” Edie Hill’s “We Bloomed in Spring” and “Poem for 2084,” and Joanne Metcalf’s “”Shining Light” prefaced and followed “A Native Hill” with power and beauty, and were performed with strength and sensitivity.
Hot on the heels of its stunning rendition of Handel’s “Messiah,” the Philadelphia Orchestra continued its celebration of the Christmas season with an equally beautiful performance of Gian Carlo Menotti’s 1951 made-for-television opera, “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” Dec. 13 and 15 in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall.
England’s Bramwell Tovey conducted the Philadelphians plus a host of vocal soloists and the Philadelphia Symphonic Choir in the Orchestra’s first performances of the complete opera. Saturday evening’s concert drew a full house that couldn’t contain its enthusiasm and admiration, showering an ecstatic ovation on the musicians.
Menotti has a powerful “local connection” for Philadelphia music lovers. He and his longtime partner, West Chester’s Samuel Barber, were among the first classes of graduates of the Curtis Institute of Music, which was established in 1924. Following the success of his first opera, “Amelia Goes to the Ball” (a neglected masterpiece if ever there was one), NBC-TV commissioned Menotti to compose a one-act opera for the Christmas season to debut directly on television.
By writing his own libretto, Menotti guaranteed complete control over the artistic result, which was as concise a work for the operatic stage as has ever been composed. In one fell swoop “Amahl” tells the story of a crippled boy with an unfettered imagination whose home is visited by the three magi making their way to Bethlehem to worship the new born “King of the Jews.” Having nothing of material value to give the babe, Amahl offers his own crutch. He is, of course, rewarded for his generosity to the helpless infant Messiah by the miraculous cure of his lameness in a premonition of Jesus’ healing the sick during his ministry.
Menotti’s libretto makes much of this strain of Christ’s helping the helpless without sacrificing the opera’s narrative integrity or degenerating into an off-putting pomposity. Yet it would be hard to miss “the point” of “Amahl and the Night Visitor.” And I’ve often wondered if this direct criticism of our world’s overwhelming materialism hasn’t kept if off the stage as often as it should be found there.
Certainly no one could quibble with the quality of Menotti’s score. It’s a perfect balance between the developmental techniques of classical music and the presentational tunefulness of popular music. The score stands as an iconic lighthouse for composers of contemporary opera and the teams that produce contemporary Broadway musicals. It’s both challenging and accessible.
Saturday evening’s performance was stellar. Under Tovey’s baton, the Philadelphians evoked the pastoral and dramatic qualities of Menotti’s music. More important, his cast was superb. Boy treble Dante Michael DiMaio was splendid in the title role. The tone of his voice was sweet yet his projection of it was potent and effortless. Plus his acting caught the role’s tremulous belief in the magic of faith with intense conviction.
Mezzo-soprano Renee Tatum sang and portrayed the part of his mother beautifully. Tenor Andrew Stenson, bass-baritone Brandon Cedel and bass David Leigh were equally memorable as the three magi.
Prior to intermission, Tovey led stylish interpretations of Walton’s “Crown Imperial Coronation March” and Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.”
ROUND OUT THE OLD…
If you’re looking for a classical music way to round out the old year and welcome in the new, Matthew Glandorf and Choral Arts Philadelphia have the perfect event for you. Choral Arts Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Bach Festival Collegium will perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s Magnificat” and George Frideric Handel’s “Coronation” Anthems Monday, Dec. 31, from 4 to 6 p.m. in St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, 2013 Appletree St., Philadelphia.
Choral Arts is a choir of approximately 40 singers, eight of whom form its professional core. The Bach Collegium is an orchestra of baroque period instruments.
Bach’s “Magnificat” is the finest setting of the sacred text found in the New Testament Gospel of St. Luke detailing the Blessed Virgin Mary’s “Visitation” to St. Elizabeth, the mother of St. John the Baptist. Handel composed his four “Coronation” Anthems in 1727 for the coronation in Westminster Abbey of George II as King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The first three – “Zadok the Priest,” “Let thy hand be strengthened” and “The King Shall Rejoice” – were meant specifically for the King’s crowning. The fourth – “My heart is inditing” – was intended for the crowning of his wife, Queen Caroline.
For those of you with a good memory of “choral concerts past,” you undoubtedly recall that St. Clement’s Church was the site for the annual Christmas concerts of the Philadelphia Signers conducted by the late Michael Korn. Along with the Singers, Korn founded of the original Chestnut Hill-based Bach Festival of Philadelphia in 1976. In yet another salute to tradition, Glandorf and Choral Arts Philadelphia will perform Johannes Brahms’ “German Requiem” in a new English translation at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. The concert is scheduled for Saturday, May 25, at 7 p.m., and will mark the 10th anniversary of the death of Sean Deibler, Choral Arts’ founder. For more information visit choralarts.com