by Michael Caruso
There used to be an old joke-line that said, “I went to a boxing match last night and, would you believe it, an ice hockey game broke out?” The joke, of course, referred to the tendency of fights between the players breaking out during ice hockey games.
Well, I experienced something of a similarly inappropriate connection Saturday evening, June 1, in Chestnut Hill. I attended a concert by the Chestnut Street Singers at Our Mother of Consolation Roman Catholic Church. The program of music to be performed unaccompanied was called “The Silent Forest.” To the delight of the decent-sized audience, the first half of the concert was beautifully sung by the 22-member choir. And then, during intermission, one of the choristers announced that someone had robbed her and her fellow vocalists of cash and cell phones that had been left in the basement hall of the church.
Having gone out to hear a concert, I and the other members of the audience, in addition to the singing, encountered a crime scene. I remained at the church for about a half-hour and then returned home, by which time the police had not yet arrived. The choir members decided that they wouldn’t continue with the second half of the program. They encouraged members of the audience who could do so to hear the concert in full the following afternoon at Old St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in the Society Hill section of the city.
The interpretations given the 10 pieces that comprised the first half of the program were stellar. Samuel Scheidt’s “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” (“Now come, savior of the gentiles”) is an eloquent example of late Renaissance polyphony, packed with full-throated counterpoint and ebb-and-flow antiphony. Hieronymous Praetorius’ “Wie lang, o Gott” (“How long, o God”) reminded me somewhat of the uninterrupted counterpoint of England’s masterful William Byrd whenever he composed for the newly established Church of England.
Johannes Brahm’s “Nachtwache” I & II – “Quiet sounds of the breast” and “Are they resting?” – glow with romantic expressivity voiced in the traditions of Bach-inspired counterpoint while Hugo Wolf’s “Sechs Geistliche Leider” (“Six Sacred Songs”) take chromatic melody and harmony nearly to its outer limits before all sense of tonal center is lost.
The Chestnut Street Singers caught the beauty of all 10 scores in singing of lyrical phrasing, immaculate blend of texture and balance between the ranges, exquisite diction and an effortless yet controlled projection of the spirit and emotion behind the words. Plus the performances of all 10 scores seemed to share a palpable sense of joy at singing such beautiful music and then sharing it with an appreciative audience.
The concert provided me with my first chance to hear choral singing in Our Mother of Consolation Roman Catholic Church in many a season. The church’s interior is immaculately maintained, and its resonant acoustics make for a perfect setting for similar concerts in the future.
The intended second half of the concert would have included music by Fanny Hensel, Hanns Eisler and Robert Schumann. It was, indeed, performed in full at Old St. Joseph’s Church Sunday afternoon, and I’m told the performances of those works were unfailingly impressive.
Matthew Glandorf conducted Choral Arts Philadelphia and pianists Mark Livshits & Anna Kislitsyna in the local premiere of the English–language/piano four-hands version of Johannes Brahms “Ein Deutsches Requiem” (“A German Requiem”). The concert took place Saturday, May 25, in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill and it marked the 10th anniversary of the death of Sean Deibler, Choral Arts’ founder.
The score’s full title, “Ein Deutsches Requiem, nach Worten der heiligen Schrift” (“A German Requiem, to Words of the Holy Scriptures”), distinguishes it as completely unlike the traditional settings of the Latin Requiem Mass, or more properly, the Latin Mass for the Dead.
Although the texts used for those works of sacred choral music include excerpts from the ancient Latin Vulgate of the Bible, or expansions based on them, the majority of the words of a Latin Requiem Mass are taken from the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. They are sung as prayers for the soul of the person who has died in the hope of assuring their passage from the travails of an earthly life to the perfection of a heavenly paradise.
In choosing full-blown selections from Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible, Brahms set his “German Requiem” in the contemporary language of the people who would hear it. And, more important, he cast his “Requiem” not in the direction of the departed one but in the direction of those left behind, the family and friends of the deceased who were seeking solace and reassurance in their grief.
The opening sentences of each of the seven movements act as a balm of compassion. “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall have comfort.” “Behold, all flesh is as the grass.” “Lord, make me to know the measure of my days on earth.” “How lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts!” “Here on earth we have no continuing place.” And finally concluding with, “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord.”
When heard with its full orchestral accompaniment to the choral writing, “A German Requiem” sometimes sounds like either a symphony with voices or an opera without the staging. Brahms most definitely employed his most imaginative tonal palette to that orchestral foundation. Not altogether surprisingly, Brahms’ rival for the throne of German music in the second half of the 19th century, Richard Wagner, considered “A German Requiem” to be Brahms’ masterpiece and a score that proved that the “old classical forms” could still work in the right hands.
In the four-hand piano version Glandorf and Choral Arts performed in Chestnut Hill, the sole focus of the music becomes the choral writing and the text that inspired it. Even the most lyrical pianists can’t disguise the instrument’s percussive character and its subsequent lack of a true legato in the sense of how the string section of a symphony orchestra can play. In this arrangement, the “romantic half” of Brahms’ compositional style takes a back seat to the “classical half.” The level of choral counterpoint in “A German Requiem” rivals the unaccompanied masterpieces of Renaissance composers such as Palestrina and Victoria. What you hear is a multitude of melodies projecting the development of motifs that delineate the text.
Glandorf conducted Choral Arts Philadelphia and the admirable duo-pianists Mark Livshits & Anna Kislitsyna in an exemplary and revelatory performance before a large and supportive audience in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. They caught the somber lyricism of the opening movement with beautifully shaped phrases. With a light touch for texture and unblemished blend, they offered the fugal intricacies of the second movement. With the impassioned help of baritone soloist Jean Bernard Cerin, they expressed the dark profundity of the third movement.
Glandorf was especially successful projecting the pastoral beauty of the fourth movement, the comfort of the fifth, the terror of the sixth and the promise of paradise of the seventh.
Like the legendary Michael Korn, Sean Deibler played an integral part in making Philadelphia a central player in the world of American choral ensembles. And, like Korn, the impact of his legacy continues to influence choral music today, both in Philadelphia and throughout the entire country. By efficaciously heading both Choral Arts Philadelphia and the Bach Festival of Philadelphia, Glandorf offers as close to a guarantee as possible that those legacies will continue to thrive in Philadelphia.