by Michael Caruso
As it has for the past several years, the Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Chestnut Hill, marked Good Friday with an evening performance of Franz Joseph Haydn’s “The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross.” The concert took place April 19 and featured the playing of the Fairmount String Quartet. The ensemble is comprised of violinists Rachel Segal & Leah Kim, violist Beth Dzwil and cellist Mary Morris Kim.
Good Friday is the day on which all Christians — Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants — believe that Jesus Christ was crucified. The week in which it falls begins with Palm Sunday and Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. Good Friday follows Maundy (Holy) Thursday, the evening when Jesus celebrated the “Last Supper,” which established the communion service central to the Christian faith. It is followed by Easter Sunday, the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection.
Haydn originally composed “The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross” in 1783 for full orchestra, and then adapted it for string quartet in 1787. The seven sonatas that follow the reading of each of the seven “words” (short phrases or full sentences taken from the Gospels of Saints Matthew, Luke and John) spoken by Christ as he hung on the cross are prefaced by an “Introduzione in D minor” at the start and concluded by “Il terremoto in C minor” (The Earthquake) at the end.
Haydn didn’t attempt to translate the text directly into instrumental music by mirroring the shape of the words, themselves. Rather he strove to project the external mood and context of those words and thereby reveal their internal meaning. The result is a series of seven one-movement sonatas (music to be played rather than sung) that chronicle in sound Jesus’ nailing on and eventual death upon the cross at the hands of the Roman soldiers outside the walls of the ancient city of Jerusalem. Haydn’s music is somber, dramatic and lyrical.
Friday evening’s performance of “The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross” by the members of the Fairmount String Quartet was splendid. From a purely technical standpoint, the playing was expert to the point of perfection. Tuning, ensemble, balance, blend, dynamics and phrasings were immaculate. More importantly, the Fairmount’s rendition caught the spirit of the scriptural readings and the solemnity of the Christian holy day.
Although the Christian Holy Week of liturgies from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday usually brings out special choral selections from the traditional repertoire, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Locust Street, also chose to program parts of the contemporary literature. For Palm Sunday, the parish’s music director, Robert McCormick, and his choir performed the unaccompanied setting of the Ordinary of the Mass composed by Roxborough’s Vincent Persichetti, 1915-1987. Persichetti was trained at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music and taught at New York City’s Juilliard School starting in 1947.
Although voiced in a modern, chromatic melodic/harmonic idiom, the “Sanctus & Benedictus” and “Agnus dei” movements from Persichetti’s “Mass for Mixed Chorus” are touchingly lyrical and were sung with moving expressivity.
Continuing his nod to local composers, McCormick chose Matthew Glandorf’s lovely “Crux fidelis” (Faithful cross) for St. Mark’s Good Friday Solemn Liturgy. Once again, St. Mark’s choir under McCormick’s direction sang the work beautifully.
Glandorf is Michael Korn’s successor as artistic director of the Philadelphia Bach Festival and Sean Deibler’s successor at Choral Arts Philadelphia. He will lead Choral Arts in a tribute to Deibler Saturday, May 25, at 7 p.m. in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. The program will feature the local premiere of a new English translation of Johannes Brahms’ “A German Requiem” in the composer’s own four-hand piano arrangement of the orchestral accompaniment. For more information, visit choralarts.com
Philadelphia Orchestra music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin stepped into the role of guest conductor Sunday evening, April 14, without ever leaving the City of Brotherly Love. Well, to be precise, it was only a semi-guest conductor role. Nezet-Seguin led the Curtis Symphony Orchestra in Claude Debussy’s “Nocturnes” and Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor in the Kimmel Venter’s Verizon Hall. He has served on Curtis’ faculty as a “mentor conductor” since 2013, having become the Philadelphia Orchestra’s music director the previous year.
Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony is one of those legendary final symphonic efforts by a composer who died before completing its score. The Viennese master had finished the symphony’s first three movements when he died in 1896, leaving behind as many as 200 pages of music for its concluding fourth movement. In a way not unlike the opinion regarding the two extant movements of Franz Schubert’s so-called “Unfinished” Eight Symphony, many of Bruckner’s most faithful devotees are more than convinced that the Ninth Symphony is perfectly satisfying as it stands with only three movements.
Those three movements reveal a composer at the height of his structural command and expressive language. Channeling the high romantic chromatic style of Richard Wagner into the late classical forms of Johannes Brahms, Bruckner’s orchestration is both extravagant and intimate, balancing passages of gargantuan scoring for the brass choir against sections of touching delicacy for the woodwinds, all surrounded by cascading string writing that seethes and shimmers.
Despite the remarkable youth of virtually every player on Verizon’s stage April 14, Nezet-Seguin elicited a performance that sizzled with energy yet glowed with artistry. The expanded brass choir filled the hall with resounding fanfares, the woodwinds sang with choral clarity, and the strings resurrected the famous “Philadelphia Sound” of Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy.
Prior to intermission, Nezet-Seguin led a glistening rendition of Debussy’s “Nocturnes.” “Nuages” (Clouds) shifted in and out of lush harmonies, “Fetes” (Festivals) danced with glee, and “Sirenes” (Sirens), with the help of the women of Choral Arts Philadelphia, prepared by Matthew Glandorf, seduced the listener’s ear with sultry undulations.
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