Piffaro opens season with salute to William Byrd

by Michael Caruso
Posted 10/5/23

Piffaro, the Renaissance Band, will open its 2023-24 concert season Saturday, Oct. 14, at 7:30 p.m. in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill.

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Piffaro opens season with salute to William Byrd


Piffaro, the Renaissance Band, will open its 2023-24 concert season Saturday, Oct. 14, at 7:30 p.m. in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. The program is entitled “The Year the Music Died: England, 1623.” It focuses on the music of William Byrd.

Piffaro is celebrating its 39th season and the second under its new artistic director, the Mt. Airy-born and Juilliard-trained Priscilla Herreid. Byrd’s music will be supplemented by several scores composed by his contemporaries, Phillip Rosseter and Thomas Weelkes.

Byrd is most famous for having been able to negotiate the tricky terrain in 16th and early 17th century England when the kingdom was rocked by dramatic changes in religion. Early on, King Henry VIII broke with the pope in Rome because he wouldn’t grant him the annulment of his marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon that he needed to marry Anne Boleyn.

Upon Henry’s death, his young son ascended the throne as King Edward VI, who swung the Church in England further toward Protestantism. When Edward died, he was succeeded by his older sister, Mary Tudor, a devout Catholic who returned England to the Catholic fold. Upon her death, her younger sister Elizabeth (Anne Boleyn’s daughter) came to the throne in 1558 as Queen Elizabeth I and ruled until 1603.

Under Elizabeth’s reign, the formal establishment of the Church of England as a “Reformed, Protestant Faith” was clarified under the “Thirty-Nine Articles of Faith” and reaffirmed by the “Religious Settlement of 1701.”

Byrd, along with Thomas Tallis, walked a delicate tightrope. Both remained devout Catholics throughout their lives. Their talent protected them. The queen not only permitted their remaining true to the “Old Faith,” but allowed them to compose sacred Latin choral music for private celebrations of the Catholic Mass – as long as they also composed music for the newly established Anglican liturgy of the Church of England.

Byrd’s “Great Service” set a standard for English-language sacred choral music that has never been surpassed.

The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill is at 8855 Germantown Ave. For more information about the concert call 215-235-8469.

Opera’s ‘Simon Boccanegra’

Opera Philadelphia opened its 2023-24 season with a stunning production of Giuseppe Verdi’s rarely performed yet woefully underrated opera, “Simon Boccanegra.” The show was performed at the historic Academy of Music, the perfect opera house, Sept. 22, 24, 29 and Oct. 1.

I caught the Sunday, Oct. 24, matinee, along with a nearly full house, and came away with a higher regard for the powers-that-be at Opera Philadelphia and a renewed appreciation and understanding of why Italians still consider Verdi - along with Claudio Monteverdi - to be their greatest composer.

“Simon Boccanegra” premiered in Venice’s La Fenice in 1857, but failed to make a lasting impression. Verdi’s publisher encouraged him to revise the orchestration and refine the Council Chamber scene with the help of librettist/composer Arrigo Boito for its second premiere in 1881. After that event, “Boccanegra” has come to be regarded as one of Verdi’s finest efforts. It works more successfully, both dramatically and orchestrally. Verdi was so impressed with Boito’s work on the libretto of “Boccanegra” that they worked together for the last of Verdi’s operas: “Otello” and “Falstaff.” The pair have long been considered the finest in Verdi’s canon of works for the stage.

The storyline of “Simon Boccanegra” centers around the attempts by the Italian city-state of Genoa in the 14th century to quell infighting between powerful families that threaten its prosperity. Genoa was considered the “Venice of the West.” Like “La Serenissima” (The Most Serene Republic of Venice) on Italy’s eastern Adriatic shore, Genoa’s wealth came from seafaring in the Mediterranean Sea. Like Venice, Genoa created the office of “Doge” (Duke) as its chief executive officer.

In Verdi’s opera, Simon Boccanegra was that Doge. Unfortunately, he came to the ducal throne with a truckload of personal baggage that plagued his administration and family throughout his reign and life.

Opera Philadelphia’s production was conducted by Corrado Rovaris and featured stage direction by Lawrence Dale, set design by Gary McCann, costume design by Fernando Ruiz and lighting design by John Bishop. Everyone’s efforts came together superbly Sunday afternoon for an audience that nearly filled the Academy of Music. Most impressive was Rovaris’ work with both his singers and his orchestral players. The singing was universally romantic and dramatic while the playing was focused and resonant, reminding one and all of the Academy’s peerless acoustics as an opera house.


Baritone Quinn Kelsey made a towering yet brooding Boccanegra, soprano Ana Maria Martinez was an expressive and touching Amelia, bass-baritone Christian van Horn was a troubled Fiesco, tenor Richard Trey Smagur was a thrilling Gabreile, and baritone Benjamin Taylor was an evil Paolo.

 For more information about Opera Philadelphia’s 2023-24 season, visit