by Michael Caruso
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany, Sunday, Jan. 12, with a service of Lessons & Carols. Parish music director Andrew Kotylo presided over a program of organ and choral music that was expertly chosen and artistically performed.
Kotylo’s task was to choose choral selections that complemented and enhanced the scriptural readings that cover the span of time from the prophecies of the promised Messiah from the Old Testament through the nativity narratives of the New Testament Gospels and onto Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist (celebrated Jan. 13) and his “Transfiguration” (celebrated Aug. 6).
That he managed to do so is proof of his towering command over the repertoire of sacred choral music. That a mostly volunteer choir performed those choices superbly is proof positive of his commanding artistry as a choral director.
The service got underway with a haunting rendition of the 10th century plainsong, “Jesu dulcis memoria” (O light of Light), sung from the back of the church still bathed mostly in darkness. Francis Poulenc’s 20th century motet, “O magnum mysterium” (O great mystery) was sung with supple lyricism and aching wonder. Its modal harmonies posed no difficulty for the parish choir of youngsters and adults. The singers maintained pristine tuning and immaculate balance.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s “O Jesulein” (O little one sweet) is set in the master’s peerless counterpoint of independent lines moving in and out of dissonance and consonance to produce a texture of heightened spirituality and expressivity. It was sung with gentle sweetness and an unbroken “legato” of smoothly bound-together melodies. Jacob Handl’s 16th century “Omnes de Saba venient” (All they from Saba shall come) was sung with unaffected energy and undimmed brightness of tone.
Felix Mendelssohn’s “There Shall a Star from Jacob Come Forth” was sung so beautifully that I found myself hoping that one of these days Kotylo and his choristers might perform “Christus,” the oratorio from which is was drawn. Alessandra Gabbianelli was the splendid soloist in the opening recitative while tenors Kyle Blackburn & William Lim and baritone Rene Miville sang the parts of the wise men with stalwart beauty.
Elizabeth Poston’s setting of the traditional “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” is imaginative and compelling, and the choir sang it with polished intensity. Marisa Curcio was the admirable soprano soloist. The excellent rendition given John Rutter’s touching arrangement of John Jacob Niles’ “I Wonder as I Wander” included the fine singing of treble Livia Stites at its start. Donald Pearson’s “Falan-Tidings” brought the choir’s portion of the service to a resounding finale.
Kotylo provided bookends for the Lessons & Carols at the church’s magnificent Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ. He played Jean Langlais’ four-movement “La Nativite” with a delicate touch for registration and a strong feel for the music’s tonal narrative. At the service’s conclusion, Kotylo very nearly pulled out all the stops for a stunning performance of Olivier Messiaen’s “Dieu parmi nous” (God among us).
He shepherded the composer’s over-the-top coloristic effects and dazzling dissonances into an expansive yet controlled explosion of sound. He continues a tradition at St. Paul’s Church of unmatched brilliance and artistry of organ playing that reaches back to the start of my days writing for the Local during the legendary tenure of music director Richard Alexander.
Speaking of maintaining traditions, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 1625 Locust St., remains the region’s leading exponent of the High Church Anglican liturgy and music. I caught both the Choral High Mass and Solemn Evensong & Benediction Sunday, Jan. 5. At the former, the choir sang Tomas Luis de Victoria’s “Missa O Magnum Mysterium.”
At the latter, it sang the same Mendelssohn anthem heard Jan. 12 at St. Paul’s plus the “Magnificat” and “Nunc dimittis” from Charles Villiers Stanford’s “Evening Service in A.” All were sung sublimely. Finally, music director/organist Robert McCormick will be joined in performance by seven trumpeters Sunday, Jan. 19, 4 p.m. in a recital marking the restoration of St. Mark’s Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ Opus 948.