by Michael Caruso
Choral music is at the very heart and soul of the classical music scene in Chestnut Hill. Only recently, Andrew Kotylo conducted the Choir of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in the parish’s final Choral Evensong of the liturgical season.
Keeping the ball rolling, local music lovers can hear two major choral events this weekend. The Chestnut Street Singers will present their final concert of the season Saturday, June 1, at 8 p.m. in Our Mother of Consolation Roman Catholic Church. The following Sunday afternoon at 5 p.m. will hear the final Choral Evensong of the season at the Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, led by parish music director Erik Meyer.
In a rare change of tradition, the principal choral work for St. Martin’s Choral Evensong will not be a setting of the traditional texts of the “Magnificat” and “Nunc Dimittis,” as found in the New Testament Gospel of St. Luke. Instead, the choir will sing Joel Thompson’s “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” a title that refers to seven young African American men who have been shot and killed by police officers while not carrying a gun.
Meyer explained the choice by saying that he had become aware of the score through MusicSpoke, the company that publishes both his and Thompson’s music.
“The idea behind it was brilliant,” Meyer told me. “There are numerous musical settings of the seven last words of Christ on the Cross, most notably those of Haydn and Dubois. Thompson adapted this idea: instead of setting Jesus’ words, he used the last words of seven unarmed African American men before they were killed by police.
“Thompson sent me a note regarding the work,” Meyer continued. “He wrote: ‘This piece was essentially a sonic diary expressing my fear, anger, and grief in the wake of these tragedies. Finishing this work…was a much-needed catharsis; I felt exorcised of the emotions that had drained my spirit. Liturgical settings of the Seven Last Words of Christ are not attempting to demonize the Roman soldiers that orchestrated the crucifixion, but they are designed to stir within the listener empathy towards the suffering of Jesus. Similarly, this piece is not an anti-police protest work; it is really a meditation on the lives of these black men and an effort to focus on their humanity, which is often eradicated in the media to justify their deaths.’
“I listened to a performance of it online,” Meyer continued, “and was so moved that I immediately polled the choir to see if they’d be willing to sing it – knowing that that this piece was full of raw emotion, and that we would risk being perceived as anti-police, which we are not. The response was overwhelmingly positive – many said they were moved to tears.
‘This ‘Seven Last Words’ is clearly not a sacred work,” he said, “but it is perfectly appropriate for an Evensong at St. Martin’s. We are strongly committed to anti-racism and working towards racial justice. We also have been vocal about preventing gun violence. While the words we will sing on June 2 were not the last words of Jesus, they were the last words of seven children of God who were unnecessarily killed. I hope our performance will, to use the words of the ‘Magnifcat’ which we sing at every Evensong, ‘exalt the humble and weak” and bring a bit of spiritual healing to our city.” This performance will be the local premiere.
CHESTNUT STREET SINGERS
The Chestnut Street Singers will perform “Den Stillen Wald” (“The Silent Forest”) Saturday, June 1, at 8 p.m. in Our Mother of Consolation Roman Catholic Church, 9 E. Chestnut Hill Ave. There will be a repeat performance Sunday, June 2, at 3 p.m. in Old St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic, 321 Willings Alley, at 4th and Walnut Streets in the Society Hill section of Philadelphia. “Old St. Joe’s” is the oldest Roman Catholic Church in Philadelphia, founded in 1733 by the Jesuit Fathers.
The Chestnut Street Singers’ program will offer a meditation on what grounds us even amidst our strife: beauty and devotion. The roster of pieces sung will explore several centuries of German music, ranging from lesser-known Renaissance motets to 20th century landmarks. Featured composers include Michael Praetorius, Robert Schumann, Hugo Wolf and Arnold Schoenberg. For more information, visit ChestnutStreetSingers.org
Newly named parish director of music Andrew Kotylo conducted the Choir of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, in the final Choral Evensong of this year’s liturgical season on Sunday, May 12. Despite being on the job for less than three months, Kotylo has proven himself a worthy successor to the highly admired Zachary Hemenway, who is now working at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Seattle.
Kotylo braced the choral portions of the traditional Anglican afternoon service with solo organ works that highlighted the church’s magnificent Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ. At the opening, he played Searle Wright’s “Lyric Rhapsody;” at the close, his choice was Edward Bairstow’s “Prelude in C.” In the former, Kotylo caught the music’s dark exoticism of modal harmonies and tart dissonances with sinister registrations; in the latter, he highlighted the organ’s brilliance and power, choosing bright registrations to delineate the score’s mercurial counterpoint and unleashing its full throttle to virtually shake the house’s foundations.
Kotylo chose Charles Villiers Stanford as the composer for the service’s two principal works: the “Magnificat” and “Nunc Dimittis” from his “Evening Service in B-flat major.” In the “Magnificat,” Stanford set the exuberant words of the Blessed Virgin Mary in full, flowing harmonies voiced in antiphonal dialogues that projected the shape of the text. For the more somber words of St. Simeon in the “Nunc Dimittis,” Stanford established a warmer tone through darker harmonies and gentler melodic lines. In both works, the choir sang with impressive tonal blend between the sections, a broad palette of dynamics from soft to loud, clarity of diction, potency of emotional expression, and that special feel for the spiritual connotation behind the specific denotation of the words.
With Kotylo at the organ console, Steven Gearhart conducted the choir in the Offertory anthem, “Juilate Deo” by Sir William Walton. Gearhart, who was the parish’s interim choral director during the nine months between Hemenway’s resignation and Kotylo’s appointment, led a compelling interpretation of Walton’s energetic setting of Psalm 66.