by Michael Caruso
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, celebrated the “Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle” with a Choral Evensong Sunday, Jan. 27. The service marked the feast of the parish’s patron saint.
It was also the final Choral Evensong to be conducted by interim choral director Steven Gearhart and accompanied by interim organist James Batt. Come the next scheduled Choral Evensong on Sunday, Feb. 24, at 5 p.m., the parish’s musical forces will be led by its new music director, Andrew Kotylo, who will have assumed his duties at the church as of the middle of February.
Although the parish’s previous music director, Zachary Hemenway, was certainly a hard act to follow, Gearhart and Batt have been reassuring presences at St. Paul’s Church. Their final efforts were emblematic of their interim tenures. Gearhart chose an excellent repertoire of choral pieces and conducted them with confidence and expressivity, and Batt played his own solo works and the choral accompaniments with steadiness and imagination.
The principal choral works of any Evensong service are the settings of the traditional texts taken from the New Testament Gospel of St. Luke: the “Magnificat” (My soul doth magnify the Lord) and “Nunc Dimittis” (Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace). According to Scripture, the former text was declaimed by the Blessed Virgin Mary at the time of her “Visitation” to St. Elizabeth, the mother of St. John the Baptist; the latter by St. Simeon at the time of the “Presentation of Jesus” in the Temple in Jerusalem. The parish’s service fell between the two celebrations in the liturgy: Jan. 25 for the “Conversion of St. Paul” and Feb. 2 for the “Presentation,” often referred to as “Candlemas” for the blessing of candles from medieval times.
Gearhart chose A. Herbert Brewer’s settings of these two texts. His “Magnificat” bubbles over with energetic enthusiasm while the “Nunc Dimittis” is more subdued in tone. The former almost dances with joyous excitement; the latter virtually whispers a profound gratitude in hushed phrases.
Gearhart led the parish’s choir with bracing conviction in the “Magnificat” and soothing gentleness of spirit in the “Nunc Dimittis.” Batt accompanied with a symphonic palette of timbres.
Equally well performed was Gerre Hancock’s anthem at the Offertory, ”Judge Eternal.” Hancock (1934-2012) is nothing short of a legend among Anglican musicians in the United States. He was organist and master of the choristers at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Fifth Avenue, in New York City, from 1971 until 2004. He presided over one of the finest music programs in the country and led what has long been and is still considered one of the finest church choirs of men and boys in the world. His setting of this celebratory text is powerfully festive in its service of the words. Gearhart and Batt gave it a splendid reading Sunday afternoon.
The Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall was packed to the rafters Saturday evening, Feb. 2, to hear assistant conductor Kensho Watanabe lead the Philadelphia Orchestra in an all-Tchaikovsky program. The Curtis Institute of Music alumnus was joined by cellist Edgar Moreau for “Variations on a Rococo Theme,” Opus 33, for Cello & Orchestra. On their own, Watanabe and the Philadelphians opened the concert with “Capriccio italien,” Opus 45, and closed it with the Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Opus 13, “Winter Daydreams.”
Although most classical music concertgoers would list Ludwig van Beethoven as the greatest of all classical music composers, they’d just as readily admit that their favorite among the classical lexicon is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. And why shouldn’t they? Tchaikovsky was a master of melody, harmony and orchestration. His music sounds better than that of virtually any other composer. And his command over classical form and structure is delineated through music of incomparable emotional power.
His music may not be as profound as that of his German contemporary, Johannes Brahms, but it’s an awful lot more fun to hear. In a way similar to the comparison of George Frideric Handel’s music to that of Johann Sebastian Bach, Tchaikovsky’s scores may not delve as deeply into the soul as do those of Brahms, but they so unfailingly touch the feelings of their listeners that they can be heard as a grateful beacon of resolution in a world not always graced with that state of being.
Although only 31 years of age, Watanabe followed that most traditional concept of classical music concerts: the overture/concerto/intermission/symphony format. The “Capriccio italien” was a scintillating choice to open the concert, the “Rococo Variations” is a shorter-than-most concerto, and the “Winter Daydreams” Symphony may be mildly programmatic in nature, but it still fits the symphonic bill. All in all, the program held together efficaciously.
In all three works, Watanabe tended to allow the brass choir to take over the overall sonic texture of the music. I found myself recalling Richard Strauss’ warning to conductors not to give the brass players too many encouraging glances or else they’re bound to overwhelm the volume of every other section of the ensemble. Certainly the brass played exceedingly well Saturday evening but at the expense of the woodwinds and strings.
This was particularly the case in the First Symphony. On many occasions in all four movements one struggled to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra’s glistening strings – and did so unsuccessfully most of the time. Tchaikovsky’s writing for the brass choir is beyond exemplary – it’s nothing short of spectacular. But the same can be said about his writing for the strings and the woodwinds.
The Philadelphians’ immaculate blend of all three sections – strings, woodwinds and brass – has been the hallmark of the fabulous “Philadelphia Sound” going all the way back to Leopold Stokowski’s tenure between 1912 and 1938. It’s a tradition perfected during the tenure of Stokowski’s successor, Eugene Ormandy, through 1980. It was continued under Riccardo Muti, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Christoph Eschenbach and Charles Dutoit, and continues now with Yannick Nezet-Seguin. It was surprising – and disappointing – to hear it undermined Saturday evening.
On the brighter side, Watanabe held the music together with admirable command, elicited fine playing from all sections of the ensemble and accompanied cellist Moreau in a moving rendition of the “Rococo Variations.” It was also encouraging to see the Orchestra playing to its repertory strength and audience preference: the romantic core of the symphonic canon.
Chestnut Hill resident Cristian Macelaru will conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra in a trio of concerts Feb. 7, 8 & 9 in Verizon Hall. The program is entitled “Viva Espana!” and will feature the Orchestra debut of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet in Rodrigo’s “Concierto andaluz” for Four Guitars & Orchestra. Also on the roster will be Chabrier’s “Espana,” Falla’s “El amor brujo” and Ravel’s “Rapsodie espagnole.”
Macelaru was previously the Orchestra’s assistant conductor, associate conductor and conductor-in-residence. He is now one of the most sought-after guest conductors in the world yet he continues to return to the Philadelphians’ podium to lead subscription concerts and special events.
As part of its celebration of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven, New York City’s legendary Carnegie Hall has invited Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra to perform all nine of the master’s Symphonies during the 2019-2020 season. It’s a singular honor for our young maestro and “Fabulous Philadelphians.” Nezet-Seguin is also the music director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, the nation’s leading classical music performing arts organization.
During the 2019-2020 season, Carnegie Hall will also mark the centenary of the birth of violinist Isaac Stern. Alongside his fabulous career as one of the greatest violin virtuosos of all time, Stern led the 1960s campaign to save Carnegie from demolition. Throughout his career he made countless appearances and recordings with the Philadelphians under the baton of Eugene Ormandy, and he was the musical adviser and violin performer in the 1946 Warner Bros. motion picture, “Humoresque,” starring Joan Crawford and John Garfield. Obviously, he was a man of many talents.