by Michael Caruso
The Episcopal Church of St. Martin-the-Fields, Chestnut Hill, brought the Christmas season to a close Sunday afternoon, Jan. 6, with a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. The service also marked the ancient Feast of the Epiphany, the “manifestation” of the Christ child to the Gentiles, with the visit to Bethlehem of the three magi from the East.
Parish music director Erik Meyer fashioned and performed a nearly perfect Lessons and Carols. All nine of the carols that followed the nine readings from Scripture not only complemented those readings, but they enhanced them in a way only beautifully performed music can do.
Bernard de La Monnoye’s “Willie, bring your little drum” set the service off to a bouncy start, but it was the second and third musical selections that truly struck gold. Both Richard Jacques’ arrangement of the traditional carol “Good King Wenceslas” and John Rutter’s arrangement of the Cornish carol “Now the holly bears a berry” recalled music of “olden times” to evoke the narratives of Christ’s Nativity found in the New Testament Gospels of St. Luke and St. Matthew.
Nothing could be more historically appropriate than this. Lessons and Carols and Choral Evensong are the result of the mid-19th century High Church Oxford Movement that sought to revive the liturgy, music and piety of the Pre-Reformation Church in England. Many of these were jettisoned after the sectarian upheavals of the 16th century and the Protestant tendencies of the Hanover Kings George I, II and III. These two carols reverberate with the memory of these nearly forgotten traditions and effectively brought them back into the Christmas celebrations of the Church of England.
Malcolm Sargent’s arrangement of the Czech carol “Girls and boys, leave your toys” catches the festiveness of the holiday. H.W. Davies’ version of the traditional English carol “The holly and the ivy” is sweet yet pungent. John Rutter’s “Born in a stable so bare” is both sentimental and laden with sentiment. Erik Meyer’s arrangement of the African American carol “There’s a star in the east on Christmas morn” swings hypnotically. Martin Shaw’s version of the traditional carol “Lully, lulla” is delicately hued while Harold Darke’s “In the bleak mid-winter” intimately places the birth of Christ within its personal context.
Throughout the entire service, St. Martin’s Choir sang beautifully. Most impressive was the singing of its young trebles, in particular soprano Betsy Cooper and alto Francis Martin in “The holly and the ivy.” The pair rendered the duet setting of all the verses with secure tuning, clear diction and immaculate balance. Treble Lydia Meyer joined baritone Matthew Cooper in a lovely acting-out of “Good King Wenceslas,” the sopranos sang the descant in “Now the holly bears a berry” with high spirits, and the choral blend and lyrical phrasing of the entire choir in Darke’s “In the bleak mid-winter” was flawless. Meyer brought the service to a stunning conclusion at the church’s pipe organ with a dazzling performance of John Cook’s “Paean on ‘Divinum Mysterium.’”
Earlier in the day, I had the opportunity to enjoy the full musical flowering of the High Church Oxford Movement. Robert McCormick and the Choir of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Locust Street, performed W.A. Mozart’s “Missa brevis in C major (Sparrow Mass),” K. 220, within the liturgy of Solemn High Mass for the Epiphany. If you wish to experience the quality of the best of England’s cathedral choirs without having to “cross the pond,” St. Mark’s Church is the place to go.
Lyric Fest, the locally based vocal/instrumental chamber ensemble, will present “Songs from the Tundra” in two performances this weekend. The program of Nordic song and verse will be performed Saturday, Jan. 12, at 4 p.m. in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, 8855 Germantown Ave.; the concert will be repeated Sunday, Jan. 13, at 3 p.m. in the Episcopal Cathedral of Philadelphia, 38th & Ludlow Sts. in West Philadelphia.
Lyric Fest, founded and co-directed by Chestnut Hill pianist Laura Ward and East Falls mezzo Suzanne DuPlantis, will collaborate for this concert with Variant 6, the virtuoso vocal sextet. The roster of music comes from the experiences of life in the Tundra in countries such as Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Ukraine and Russia.
For more information, call 215-438-1702 or visit lyricfest.org
BACH & HANDEL
Although it’s an axiom of classical music that Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel are the fraternal twin titans of baroque music and that they’re the greatest pair of composers of sacred choral music, it’s rare to encounter any of their major scores on the same program. Perhaps its because any and all of those major works offer daunting challenges to their interpreters and performers.
Whatever those reasons, local lovers of sacred choral music have Matthew Glandorf to thank for providing us with just such an infrequent opportunity the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, Monday, Dec. 31. Glandorf conducted Choral Arts Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Bach Collegium in Bach’s “Magnificat” and Handel’s “Coronation Anthems” in St. Clement’s Episcopal (Anglo-Catholic) Church, located just off Logan Circle along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Nearly mirroring the two composers, who were both born in 1685 in nearby German states, the two works were composed within the same decade. Bach wrote his “Magnificat” in 1723 for his first Christmas in Leipzig, the northern German city where he had been appointed music director. Only four years later, the recently naturalized British subject Handel composed the four “Coronation Anthems” for the crowning of King George II and Queen Caroline in Westminster Abbey.
Bach took his text from the account in the New Testament Gospel of St. Luke of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s visit to her cousin, St. Elizabeth. He used the Latin version even though the official religion of his particular German state was Lutheran and used the vernacular German in its services. Although Latin continued to be used for official documents in the United Kingdom for centuries to come, Handel chose to set his anthems in English, the official language of his soon-to-be-adopted Church of England and one that was still fairly new to him.
If one needed additional proof of their genius above and beyond the power and beauty of the music, itself, one would only need to look at the efficacy with which Bach and Handel set Latin and English, respectively: both beautifully and powerfully. Bach is sometimes accused of not accommodating the lines of his music to the individual instrument or voice playing or singing them. Yet in the “Magnificat,” the vocal lines flow with melting lyricism while the instrumental writing pulsates with contrapuntal complexity. While Handel is now and then accused of writing little more than an operatic tune simply accompanied by a bass line and chords, in the “Coronation Anthems” the interplay between the vocal lines and their instrumental accompaniments is a complex conversation worthy of Renaissance polyphony.
Monday afternoon’s performances of both scores established Glandorf as the region’s premier interpreter of the 18th century baroque repertoire. He caught the captivating energy and lyrical intensity of the Bach without sacrificing any of its contrapuntal complexity. In the Handel, he projected the composer’s command of spacious formal architecture without overlooking the music’s beguiling sensuality and melodic/harmonic sophistication. Equally important, he elicited exquisite singing and stylistic playing from all his musicians. Choral Arts Philadelphia sang with impressive tonal amplitude aligned with linear clarity, while the Philadelphia Bach Collegium used its period instruments to add that authentic, tart timbre to the music making.
Several of Glandorf’s vocal soloists also deserve special mention. Sopranos Jessica Beebe and Rebecca Myers, both well known to local audiences, and tenor Michael Jones, recently heard locally with Piffaro, sang particularly beautifully in the Bach.
Thinking back on the many Christmastime performances by the Philadelphia Singers under the direction of the late Michael Korn, I found myself delighted to be back in St. Clement’s Church for a holiday concert. Approximately the size of Bach’s St. Thomas’ Church in Leipzig, although quite a bit smaller than the magnificent Westminster Abbey, St. Clement’s Victorian/Romanesque main sanctuary was packed for the concert. It was an encouraging end to one year and an inspiring start to another.
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