By Micahel Caruso

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, will be the site of one of the most extraordinary displays of virtuosity at the organ in recent memory. Between March 2 and April 7, Rich Spotts will perform the complete “L’Orgue mystique” by Charles Tournemire (1870-1939) on the church’s acclaimed Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ.

Organist Rich Spotts.

“About a decade ago,” Spotts explained, “I embarked upon a little pilgrimage to perform the entire ‘L’Orgue mystique’ by Tournemire. This journey took me across the United States and Canada performing portions of the score at numerous colleges, cathedrals, parish churches and other religious institutions.”

Spotts is a member of St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in center city. The parish is the region’s principal proponent of the Anglo-Catholic movement within the worldwide Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is the American province. While most Roman Catholic dioceses and parishes in the U.S. jettisoned the ancient traditions of liturgy and music, Tournemire revered following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and St. Clement’s continues to adhere to them.

“The work represents a pivotal point in the history of liturgical organ music. This ‘magnum opus’, composed between 1927 and 1932, comprises 253 movements written for the Traditional Latin Mass of the Roman Catholic Church, Lasting 15 hours, this epic work employs more than 300 plainsong melodies as an act of devotion and as a musical exegesis based upon the chant texts. The goal is to celebrate 51 Sundays and liturgical feasts throughout the calendar of the church year.”

Spotts’ schedule is daunting. It begins with the first full week of Lent and culminates during Holy Week. The series gets underway Monday, March 2, 7:30 p.m. with “Gaudate: Domenica III in Adventus,” “Immaculata Conceptio Beatae Mariae Virginis” and “Nativitas Domini Nostri Jesu Christi.” It continues at 7:30 p.m. March 3, 4, 9, 10, 11, 16, 17, 18, 23, 24, 25, 30, 31, April 1, 6 & 7.

For more information visit stpaulschestnuthill.org or call 215-242-2055.

‘LA FAVORITE’

Germantown’s Richard Raub conducted the Academy of Vocal Arts’ production of Donizetti’s “La favorite” Feb. 15, 18, 20 and 22 in AVA’s own Warden Theater in center city. I caught opening night and came away amazed at how much AVA’s forces could make out of an opera with an insufferably bad libretto.

While it’s true that most opera librettos strain the credulity of even the most gullible of audience members, the libretto of “La Favorite” crosses the line by failing to place onstage even one iota of believable motivation for any of its characters.

And yet, Donizetti responded to this heap of fictitious junk with one of his most appealing and compelling scores. The vocal writing shows him to have been at the height of his powers in 1840, eight years before his death. The opera’s solos, ensembles and choruses are idiomatic, dramatic, expressive and revelatory. And unlike almost all of the operas of Verdi, “La favorite” displays Donizetti’s deft hand at orchestration, enhancing the development of character, shallow as that might be, within the context of the narrative, unconvincing as it might be.

Raub conducted his singers and players with strength and sensitivity. The AVA Opera Orchestra played with rhythmic vitality and tonal warmth under his baton. He was no less successful with his cast.

Mezzo Anne Marie Stanley was a sympathetic Leonor, mistress of a king and beloved of a former monk. She sang with pathos and acted with passion. Tenor Oliver Sewell was effectively troubled as Fernand, who abandons the monastery to become a heroic soldier to win the hand of Leonor only to see her die in his arms. Baritone Timothy Renner was convincing as the malevolent King Alphonse, the instigator of all the opera’s mishaps. 

Gregory Boyle’s stage direction was expert – imaginative yet focused. As always, Peter Harrison’s set design made amazing use of the Warden Theater’s constricted space, and Val J. Starr’s costume and wig design conjured up another world of dark intrigue.

For more information regarding AVA’s entire season, call 215-735-1685 or visit avaopera.org.

‘SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE’

Herbert Blomstedt guest conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra Feb. 20, 21 & 22 in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. His program’s principal work was Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique” but also included Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Lise de la Salle as soloist.

The Mendelssohn is no masterpiece, but under the hands of a polished technician and consummate interpreter like de la Salle, it came across Saturday evening as an enjoyable romantic romp. She played even more beautifully in her encore: Rachmaninoff’s “Polka.”

“Symphonie fantastique” is a masterpiece of dazzling orchestration and inventive, freely conceived programmatic form. Although Blomstedt took a more leisurely and refined approach to the score than I prefer, his command over its cumulative narrative was masterful. And he eclitied exemplary playing from all sections of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

You can contact NOTEWORTHY at Michael-caruso@comcast.net. To read more of NOTEWORTHY, visit chestnuthilllocal.com/Arts/Noteworthy.

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