Mendelssohn’s sister a highlight of two concerts that spanned the standard repertoire

by Michael Caruso
Posted 10/29/21

Two of Chestnut Hill’s most musically active churches hosted concerts over the second and third weekends of October.

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Mendelssohn’s sister a highlight of two concerts that spanned the standard repertoire


Two of Chestnut Hill’s most musically active churches hosted concerts over the second and third weekends of October. The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill was the site of “A New Sun Rises” performed by Piffaro, the Renaissance Band, Oct. 9. The Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields was the venue for the Fairmount String Quartet’s “Harmony for Humanity” Oct. 16.

It’s a testament to the varied tastes of Chestnut Hill classical music lovers that these concerts spanned the standard repertoire, nearly from start to finish, from yesterday to today. Piffaro’s program proffered music composed mostly prior to 1700 while the Fairmount Quartet’s roster featured two scores written in the 19th century and a third composed in the 21st.

 If that old saying is true, that the past is another country where they live differently, then it’s no less true that great music composed from and to the heart speaks with undimmed power, both yesterday and today.

Piffaro and Variant 6, a cohesive whole

 Piffaro was joined by Variant 6 for “A New Sun Rises.” The chamber choir’s six vocalists complemented Piffaro’s six instrumentalists in music written by Staden, Willaert, Victoria, Finck, Coclico, Praetorius, Scheidt, Aleotti, Rore, Bassano, Martins, Trabaci, and three contemporary works.

Those scores were Cecilia McDowell’s “Alma redemptoris mater” and Kile Smith’s “Steht auf, ihr lieben Kinderlein,” from his “Vespers,“ and “Ave maris stella.” The McDowell is exceptional for its expansive harmonic idiom, delicate use of gentle dissonances, and fine balance between choral and instrumental forces. The “Vespers,” composed for Piffaro and The Crossing and premiered at Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church in 2008. The “Ave maris stella” is a work of surpassing lyrical beauty.

Smith’s “Vespers” is a modern masterpiece, weaving together into a seamless fabric the traditions of both the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches through evocations of Latin plainsong and German chorales, effectively coming together within the context of contemporary tonality.

Piffaro and Variant 6 combined their separate talents to form a cohesive whole in both the modern and Renaissance scores. Technical proficiency was balanced by interpretive conviction. Piffaro took on the smooth legato of Variant 6’s singing while Variant 6 assimilated the tart vibrancy of Piffaro’s playing.

Fairmount Quartet play the Mendelssohns – Felix and Fanny

 Although the score composed by the most prominent composer – Felix Mendelssohn – occupied the middle spot in the program performed by the Fairmount String Quartet Oct. 16 in Chestnut Hill, it was the evening’s middle work that made the strongest impression.

 The String Quartet in E-flat major was composed by Felix’s older sister, Fanny. Although her brother’s String Quartet in D, Opus 44, no. 1, is a splendid piece of chamber music, Fanny’s opus – especially its fourth movement – is spectacular.

 The unevenness of the score’s first movement “Allegro ma no troppo” is an example of the gender discrimination Fanny Mendelssohn experienced during her lifetime. She had no editor, nor was she vouchsafed the advantages that a commercial publisher might have brought to her efforts.

 The undeniable result of this lack of helpful oversight was the presence of some awkward voice-leadings in that opening movement. The second movement “Allegretto,” on the other hand, is an expertly conceived and executed specimen of the Mendelssohn family’s ability to proffer music of charming effervescence. The third movement “Romanze” is just that – a beguiling expression of the romanticism of the era.

 But it’s the closing “Allegro molto vivace” that stamps Fanny Mendelssohn as a composer of profound talent of expression and consummate command over form and structure.

The Fairmount Quartet players – violinists Rachel Segal & Leah Kyoungwoon Kim, violist Beth Dzwil and cellist Mimi Morris-Kim – gave the work a stellar reading. Both as an ensemble and during solo portions of the score, they captured the emotional essence of the music and projected it with polish and passion. Tuning, clarity of texture, blend of tonal registration, and consistency of phrasing and dynamics marked the interpretation given this extraordinary work.

 The Fairmount Quartet gave Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in D a convincing rendition, but the four musicians saved their most their most exuberant playing for Jessie Montgomery’s “Strum.” It’s a hypnotic assimilation of stylist traits of the music of Debussy, Ravel, Bartok and Kodaly, yet all the same it speaks in a distinctly 21st century American vocabulary of spiky dissonances, unfettered harmonies, pulsating rhythms, and a free-range approach to structure that provided the composer with ample room for experimentation within the context of a coherent structure.

Jasper Chamber Concerts          

The Jasper Chamber Concerts series opens Nov. 11 at 7:30 p.m. in the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting at 20 East Mermaid Lane. The program features Jessie Montgomery’s “Strum,” heard and reviewed in this column above, Vivian Fung’s Quartet No. 1, Debussy’s String Quartet. For more information visit       

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