by Michael Caruso
Just when the world seems to be tearing itself apart at the seams and there appears to be no hope for the better angels of our nature to survive, let alone thrive, classical music comes to the rescue. Significantly, the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill played an integral role in this act of reassurance by hosting two inspiring and well-attended concerts this past weekend.
First on the roster was the Friday, March 15, performance by the Chestnut Street Singers of “Behind Closed Doors,” a program of music often intended to be sung in secret or based on previously unknown texts. Then on the following evening, Piffaro and Sonnambula played “Dancers’ Delight: Michael Praetorius’ ‘Terpsichore.’”
The Chestnut Street Singers’ program was founded on two major works: excerpts from Orlande de Lassus’ “Prophetiae Sibyllarum” and Philip Moore’s “Three Prayers of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” Lassus’ scores come from early in his 16th century career but weren’t published until after his death, perhaps because they were voiced in too challenging a harmonic language for the time. Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian who was eventually imprisoned by the Nazis and executed by them in 1945, shortly before the end of World War II. These central works were surrounded and enhanced by other compositions written as expressions of individuality against the prevailing norms of their times.
Lassus employed texts for his 12-movement score derived from ancient Greek oracles, some of which offer the promise of a Christ figure, a son of God born of a virgin, who will bring peace to the world. Considering that the 16th century saw the start of the Protestant Reformation and the forebodings of the Thirty Years War that tore Europe apart, Lassus’ optimism was remarkable. That he chose to set these texts in a harmonic idiom that often seems to shake itself free from the rules and regulations that bound sacred choral music is clearly intended to project that optimism.
The unaccompanied Chestnut Street Singers performed four selections from the set with a purity of tuning that defied comparison, an immaculacy of blend through the vocal range that was stunning, a scope of dynamics from soft to loud that was sweeping, an eloquence of phrasing that was ravishing and an intensity of textural commitment that was inspiring.
The movements of Moore’s “Three Prayers of Dietrich Bonhoeffer” are “Morning Prayers,” “Prayers in Time of Distress” and “Evening Prayers.” They constitute a full day’s worth of supplications by a devout Lutheran Christian forced to face the results of his nation’s barbaric turn of character made manifest in his own personal imprisonment and likely death. Bonhoeffer’s faith in God was never shaken, but he certainly came to despair of the notion of Christians living up to the ideals of Christ as preached in the Gospels of the New Testament of the Bible.
Moore set “Morning Prayers” in contrasting tones of dissonance and tonality, “Prayers in Time of Distress” replete with sharp thrusts of painfully jagged harmonies, and “Evening Prayers” with mellow resignation. The Chestnut Street Singers caught all these changing emotions in singing of heightened expressivity delivered through commanding control of color and texture.
The Lassus and Moore scores were surrounded in performance by works that enhanced their meaning of hope amid sadness. Two spirituals, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Steal Away,” plus pieces by Charles Ives, Michael Horvit and Steven Stucky were all sung beautifully.
But the artistic triumph of the program was William Byrd’s “Ave Verum Corpus” (Hail True Body). Composed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England, the establisher of the Church of England and the object of excommunication by the Pope in Rome, this “a cappella” setting of Catholic piety could only be performed in private.
Because the Pope had given English Catholics permission to assassinate Elizabeth, being a public member of the Church of Rome could be considered treasonous. Yet because the Queen recognized and valued Byrd’s musical genius – and also perhaps because he wrote some of the most glorious music ever composed for the Anglican liturgy – Byrd was permitted to keep his faith in private and to write music for its liturgies.
The “Ave Verum Corpus” is a model of pious purity. Its polyphonic phrases soar to spiritual heights in a seamless flow of modal harmony. The Chestnut Street Singers sang it with haunting beauty and emotional potency.
Piffaro, the Renaissance Band, and Sonnambula, the Viol Consort, performed a concert entitled “Dancers’ Delight: Michael Praetorius’ ‘Terpsichore’” Saturday, March 16, before an audience that nearly filled the main sanctuary of Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church. The program of varied arrangements of dances taken from Praetorius’ seminal work of the early 17th century, at the turn of the Renaissance into the Baroque style of classical music, was far more than a music history lesson presented in concert. It was an invigorating reminder that classical music can be both inspiring and fun.
The six wind players of Piffaro — Bob Wiemken, Eric Schmalz, Joan Kimball, Greg Ingles, Priscilla Herreid and Grant Herreid (who also played lute, guitar and percussion) — were joined by Sonnambula’s five string players — Elizabeth Weinfield, Amy Domingues, Shirley Hunt, Toma Iliev and Jude Ziliak — and harpsichordist James Kennerley for an evening of music-making that truly danced to everyone’s delight.
Along with oboist Fiona Last, Piffaro’s first “Renaissance residency” musician, this merry band of players scampered their way through dances such as the bransle, courante, bouree, pavanne, espagnollette, canarie, chanson, passamezze, gailarde, reprinse and volte. Although almost all of these particular steps and moves have faded from dance parlors all over the world, they were once the most popular of them all, danced by both aristocrats and peasants, the leaders of European society and the working classes in the villages and fields.
The unique characteristic of virtually all Piffaro concerts is the discernible degree of pleasure its members are experiencing as they’re playing instruments that have mostly fallen out of favor but that can still bring back to life the era from which they’ve been rescued. When you hear a Piffaro performance, you don’t just listen to the music; you’re transported back in time to when the music was composed and heard and, in this case, danced to.
Of course, Piffaro’s musicians have joined the ranks of the finest period instrumentalists in the world, so the playing is never anything but dazzling. Co-directors Kimball and Wiemken always oversee the expert assembling of their programs, so they sustain an unbroken historical narrative from start to finish. Bringing in the superb playing of Sonnambula, in residence at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art at The Cloisters, as an additional dollop of tonal variety was a stroke of genius.
But at the heart of Piffaro’s success is simply the pleasure its audiences always experience during its performances. Such was the case Saturday evening in Chestnut Hill. And it couldn’t have come at a better moment in the history of the human race, when the darker demons of our nature threaten to overwhelm us all.
TEMPESTA DI MARE
Philadelphia’s Baroque Orchestra, Tempesta di Mare, will present “Concerto Grosso” Sunday, March 24, at 4 p.m. in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. Concerti for several soloists by Vivaldi, Handel, Scarlatti, Fasch, Cambini and Bach will be performed. For ticket information, call 215-755-8776 or visit tempestadimare.org