by Michael Caruso
Chestnut Hill was at the epicenter of Greater Philadelphia’s choral music community Friday, May 9. Family, friends and admirers gathered in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill to remember tenor Jeffrey Dinsmore. The founding member of The Crossing, the choir that specializes in contemporary music and is based at the church, died last month in Los Angeles at the start of a rehearsal in Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Dinsmore, who was 42 years old at the time of death, was well known to local choral music fans. Prior to founding The Crossing with its music director Donald Nally, he was also a founding member of The Bridge Ensemble, predecessor of The Crossing. He sang in the Choral Arts Society when Nally was its music director, and he also sang in the choirs of both St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, and St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in center city.
The memorial concert opened and closed with organ solos played by Scott Dettra on the church’s Mander pipe organ. Dettra was previously the organist at St. Mark’s Church and regularly accompanies The Crossing in its concerts at Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church. He chose Brahms’ “Chorale Prelude Opus 122, no. 3,” at the start and Variation No. 3 from Durufle’s “Prelude, Adagio & Chorale Variations on the theme ‘Veni Creator,’ Opus 4,” at the conclusion. He selected dark registrations in the former and played with a seamless legato and powerful pedal tones to establish a somber yet uplifting mood.
In a nod to “modern music” from the early part of the previous century, the choral portion of the concert began with the “Introit” and “Kyrie” from Durufle’s “Missa da Requiem.” For a choir that usually sings nothing written more than a decade ago, the choice was tantamount to starting with a Gregorian chant.
It was fascinating hearing Nally and The Crossing sing music that to many ensembles and audiences is still “modern” but to them quite “classic.” Nally elicited singing from the choir that evoked the sound of the cathedral choirs of men and boys for which the score was originally composed without attempting to slavishly imitate their tones. Textures were clear yet powerfully projected, perhaps lacking the ethereal transparency of boy trebles but providing instead a broader spectrum of expressivity from the female sopranos.
The evening’s most emotional musical moment came during the performance of Benjamin C. S. Boyle’s “Paean,” composed on commission by The Crossing in memoriam for Jeff Dinsmore. It was a fitting tribute to a young man whose short life was an expression of generosity to everyone who knew him.
The Philadelphia Orchestra, in collaboration with Opera Philadelphia, brought its current season of concerts in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall to a close with two semi-staged performances of Richard Strauss’ groundbreaking opera, “Salome.” Sung and played May 8 and 10, it struck me as that lukewarm sort of thing that’s neither hot nor cold and, subsequently, not completely effective on any particular level – the sole exception being the playing of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Under music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin’s baton, the Philadelphians played Strauss’ daunting late romantic score with sonic intensity and rhythmic vitality, but Kevin Newbury’s direction failed to reveal either a sliver of characterization or a hint of narrative motivation that wasn’t already made plain through the English translation of the German text via supertitles.
Oscar Wilde’s telling of the biblical story of King Herod’s daughter, Salome, lusting after John the Baptist, attempting to seduce him and, upon failing to do so, demanding his head on a silver platter is a gold mine for any stage director directing a fully-staged production. (Wilde wrote the play “Salome” upon which Strauss’ opera is based.)
However, the unavoidable limitations imposed by Verizon Hall’s lack of staging facilities guaranteed a paucity of visual possibilities that shackled the presentation from its inception. And having the full Philadelphia Orchestra onstage rather than in an opera house pit (such as that featured at the Academy of Music) assured that not one member of the cast could adequately be heard over its full-throttled fortissimo.