by Michael Caruso
Two of Chestnut Hill’s most prominent churches hosted two concerts over the same weekend that couldn’t have been more different regarding the repertoire that was performed.
The Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields was the Oct. 11 site of “Vivaldissimo,” a celebration of the music of the baroque master, Antonio Vivaldi, by the Camerata Ama Deus led by Valentin Radu. Two afternoons later, the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill was the venue for the world premiere of Gavin Bryars’ “A Native Hill,” performed by Donald Nally and The Crossing.
That premiere was a bit long in coming. Nally and the choir he formed and directs for the specific purpose of presenting new and challenging works for chorus had expected to present “A Native Hill” last season. But as often is the case with new music, the process of composition took longer than the composer expected, so the final full work wasn’t ready until this concert, which opened The Crossing’s local concert season.
The 12-movement score for unaccompanied choir is based on a text derived from a 1968 essay by Wendell Berry. Its topics span a narrative starting with “The Scene of the Past” and ending with “At Peace.” In between and along the way, the listener is treated to a plethora of melodies, harmonies, rhythms and textures that challenge the ear, prod the intellect, and inspire the heart and soul.
“A Native Hill” gets underway with “The Sense of the Past.” The men begin in unison and then split into harmonies. Then the women enter, injecting an edge to an otherwise lyrical style. The text is beautifully projected and the dissonances resolve into unisons with perfect fifths in between at the movement’s conclusion.
“The Path” follows with appealing local color. “Sea Level” is voiced at the outer ranges of the women and men within the bounds of accessible tonality. Countertenor and baritone solos grace “The Pool” while a melancholy mood predominates “The Road.” Although “The Music of Steams” sports darker harmonies, they resolve with gorgeous conviction.
“Questions” is the saddest movement of the set, streaked with dramatic outbursts. “Top Soil” continues the expression of inner pain. Fortunately, it’s followed by “The Hill,” which sings a simpler song. “Animals and Birds” recalls the haunting beauty of Nature while “Shadow” is set in choral canons. The whole is brought to a convincing conclusion with “At Peace,” disappearing in a cloud of delicately pitched harmonies.
Nally and The Crossing gave this remarkable score an equally remarkable performance, interpreting and singing it as though they’d had a decade to work on it instead of only a few months. Is The Crossing the greatest choir in America? It very well could be.
The Romanian-born Valentin Radu has made it a local tradition to celebrate the genius of Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) by performing a generous roster of his many concerti in Chestnut Hill’s Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Alongside Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel, the Venetian composer helped set the tone and style of Baroque music, bridging the gap between the Renaissance and the true Classicism of Franz Joseph Haydn Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the middle and late 18th century.
Among the many fine performances heard by a small but enthusiastic audience, perhaps the finest was that given the Concerto for Viola d’amore in D major, featuring Paul Miller as soloist. He elicited a hearty tone from his instrument, employed a broad range of dynamics, and then shaped them into carefully molded phrases. Sarah Davol’s reading of the Concerto for Oboe in D minor was equally memorable. The tone she proffered was sweetly intimate yet vibrantly projected. No less admirable was the rendition Radu led of the concert’s opening work, the Sinfonia No. 3 in G major.
AT THE KIMMEL CENTER
The Kimmel Center for the Performing hosted several performances this weekend that varied in size of performers. The Philadelphia Orchestra played three concerts in the Center’s larger venue, Verizon Hall, while the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society hosted a recital in its smaller space, Perelman Theater. I heard the Philadelphians Saturday and the Brentano Quartet Sunday afternoon.
Philadelphia Orchestra music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin opened his program with Franz Liszt’s orchestral arrangement of Franz Schubert’s solo piano work, the “Wanderer” Fantasy, D. 760. The piece takes its nickname from Schubert’s own lieder of the same name on which he based the Fantasy’s slow second movement.
It’s should come as no surprise that Liszt chose to transform a solo piece by Schubert into a piano concerto. First off, Schubert never composed a piano concerto, even though his contemporary Ludwig van Beethoven composed five and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed 27. Liszt, himself, wrote two, plus several other works scored for piano and orchestra. Many classical music commentators have suggested that the unbroken structure of the “Wanderer” Fantasy served as an inspiration for Liszt’s own one-movement Piano Sonata in B minor, composed five years after he orchestrated the Schubert. The great Polish-born pianist, Artur Rubinstein, paired the two on a 1960s LP on RCA Victor.
Nezet-Seguin’s soloist for this trio of concerts was Louis Lortie. He brought a flawless balance of lyricism and brilliance to his interpretation at the Bosendorfer concert grand piano – and was joined by the Maestro, himself, for a piano-four-hand Schubert encore.
The concert’s principal work was Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor. Divided into five movements themselves divided into three larger parts, and taking 75 minutes to perform, it remains one of the most expansive scores in the standard symphonic canon, albeit one that has not always been a regular part of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s active repertoire.
These concerts marked Nezet-Seguin’s second local go at the Mahler Fifth. He previously led the Philadelphians in the work in 2010. If that earlier interpretation might be considered an “in-town out-of-town-tryout,” then these performances revealed a far clearer vision of what the great Austrian symphonist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was trying so desperately to communicate. Perhaps that intent was a sense of fear eventually turning into a feeling of hope?
Saturday evening’s rendition was characterized by Nezet-Seguin’s accustomed attention to every detail of the score. But this time around, he seemed equally intent on driving determinedly to the final movement’s shimmering conclusion. Along the way, the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra gave their Maestro everything they had – and then more. To write that Nezet-Seguin elicits the finest, most brilliant yet also most moving playing I’ve ever heard from them in all the years I’ve been a member of their audiences – 1956, to put a date on it – is to sell him and them short. Once again, as was claimed during the tenure of their almost mythic music director Leopold Stokowski, the Philadelphia Orchestra is the greatest in the world and that’s very much due to the inspired leadership of Yannick Nezet-Seguin.
Sunday afternoon’s recital by the Brentano Quartet of violinists Mark Steinberg & Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory and cellist Nina Lee plus guest violist Hsin-Yun Huang was played before a full house at the Perelman Theater. The musical bill-of-fare featured Mozart’s String Quartet in E-flat major and String Quintet in C minor prior to the interval and Ravel’s String Quartet in F major afterward.
It was during the playing of the Ravel’s slow third movement that my quibbles about the Brentano crystallized. Both violinists proffered weaker voices than did the violist and cellist. Whereas first violinist Steinberg elicited a thin, wiry tone and while second violinist Canin’s tone was pretty but pale, both Amory and Lee produced tones of vibrant colors and compelling sonorities.
Interestingly enough, in the Mozart Quintet the imbalance wasn’t as great in degree. Perhaps the presence of an added viola undergirded the playing with sufficient resonance. But in the Mozart Quartet and in the Ravel the ensemble projected a lopsided vocalism that simply didn’t do justice to either Mozart’s melodic give-and-take or Ravel’s modal lyricism.
The Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia will open its 2019-20 season Sunday, Oct. 27, at 4 p.m. with a performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “All-Night Vigil.” Considered by many to be the Russian master’s masterpiece, the acclaimed local chorus will sing it in the spacious setting of the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral (Church of the Savior), located at 38th and Ludlow Sts. in West Philadelphia. Visit MCChorus.org for more information.