Organist Chelsea Chen will perform at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Saturday, Feb. 1 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the church’s “Five Fridays: Concerts for the Community” series. (Photo courtesy of James Bondelid)

by Michael Caruso

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, will present organist Chelsea Chen in recital Friday, Feb. 1, at 7:30 p.m. The performance is part of the church’s “Five Fridays: Concerts for the Community” series that raises money for local charities. Proceeds will also benefit the “Ann Stookey Fund for Music at St. Paul’s Church.”

Chen is originally from San Diego, CA. Her formative music teachers were organists Leslie Robb (St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in San Diego) and Monte Maxwell (U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD). She also studied with pianists Baruch Arnon in New York City, and Jane Bastien and Lori Bastien Vickers in San Diego. Chen continued her studies with legendary organists Paul Jacobs and John Weaver at New York’s Juilliard School, where she received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

A Fulbright Scholarship brought her to Taiwan, where she collected folksongs as well as composed solo organ and chamber music. Returning to the United States, Chen continued her studies with Thomas Murray in the artist diploma program at Yale University.

Between the years of 2013 and 2017, Chen served as organist and concert series director at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, FL. She currently resides in New York City as the artist-in-residence at Emmanuel Presbyterian Church. Chen’s program includes music by Gjeilo, Grieg, Weaver, Chen, Messiaen, Wammes and Saint-Saens.

“Five Fridays” helps raise money for the Northwest Philadelphia Hospitality Network and Face-to-Face Germantown. Both charities strive to help the homeless and unemployed find affordable housing and employment. Since St. Paul’s Church covers all the costs for the concerts, all the proceeds go directly to the two charities.

One of the principal goals of the “Ann Stookey Fund” is to provide St. Paul’s Church with the financial wherewithal to maintain its magnificent 114-rank Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ. With nearly 7,000 pipes, it’s one of the largest church organs in the nation, a veritable full symphony of orchestral colors. Simply tuning all those pipes requires two technicians two full working days to accomplish the task. A simple line item in the parish’s budget won’t turn the trick.

Tickets are $25 for general admission and $5 for students. They are available either at the door or online. Visit fivefridays.org

BACH’S ‘GOLDBERGS’

The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society presented pianist Peter Serkin in recital Friday, Jan. 18, in the Kimmel Center’s intimate Perelman Theater. Serkin played a program of works by two of classical music’s true titans. The program’s first half featured Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Adagio in B minor, K. 540, and Sonata in B-flat major, K. 570. The recital’s entire second half was devoted to Johann Sebastian Bach’s monumental “Aria with Diverse Variations,” BWV 988. The hour-long score is commonly known as the “Goldberg Variations,” named for the gentleman who commissioned the score.

Under most circumstances, the two works by Mozart might very well be the recital’s highpoint. Composed only three and two years, respectively, before his untimely death in 1791, they represent some of the Austrian master’s final solo statements for his chosen instrument, the newly invented piano. Both the Adagio and the Sonata are voiced in a musical language that is an immaculate distillation of the classical Viennese style created by Franz Joseph Haydn and perfected by Mozart. Each note is placed securely within its perfectly shaped phrase, which is placed within the form of its individual movement, which (in the case of the Sonata) is set within the structure of the score as a whole.

The beauty of Serkin’s interpretation Friday evening before a packed Perelman Theater was the purity of his tone, the elegance of his phrasing, the clarity of the texture and the sustained intensity of his projection of the music’s overarching architecture.

But the best was yet to come, as it did after intermission. Although Bach’s ”Goldberg Variations” were probably written for the harpsichord – the “pianoforte” had only recently been invented in Italy, and Bach only played one or two of them by the time he died in 1750 – it’s equally the case that Bach, himself, used and re-used his own musical material for a plethora of different instruments in a host of different settings, both sacred and secular.

Far more important to the efficacy of a performance than the instrument is the artistic integrity of the instrumentalist. If a pianist can project Bach’s peerless counterpoint and developmental manipulation of the melodic/harmonic character of the original theme, then who’s to say that a pianist can’t play the “Goldberg Variations” as well as a harpsichordist?

Serkin’s command over the music and the Perelman’s magnificent Steinway & Sons concert grand piano were equally towering. He played Bach’s keyboard masterpiece (and the first half’s Mozart, as well) by memory, and, from what I heard, didn’t suffer a moment’s memory lapse from start to finish. The music unfolded as an unbroken song – truly an “aria and variations” – transformed in an endless flow of lyricism highlighted by dazzling virtuosity. Plus, he elicited a tone from the Steinway that was clear, expressive, inviting and enveloping. Best of all, he seemed to be playing not just for himself or even for Bach’s legacy as the greatest of all classical composers, but for his audience, which he held rapt in his artistic hands from start to finish of this daunting program.

You can contact NOTEWORTHY at Michael-caruso@comcast.net. To read more of NOTEWORTHY, visit chestnuthilllocal.org/Arts/Noteworthy

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