by Michael Caruso
Lyric Fest joined the bandwagon of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts and presented “Stranger Things: Paris in the Early 20th Century” Sunday, April 10. The concert took place in the First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia at 21st and Walnut Streets.
Three West Mt. Airy musicians were at the very heart of the program. Pianist Laura Ward and soprano Randi Marrazzo (along with mezzo Suzanne DuPlantis of East Falls) are the founding members of the ensemble. Ward and Marrazzo were joined by baritone Randall Scarlata for a program of classical and popular songs. The concert charmingly caught the spirit of daring innovation that coursed through France’s “City of Lights” as the romantic 19th century turned into the modern 20th.
The roster of composers performed included Claude Debussy, Francis Poulenc, Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie, Kurt Weill, Cole Porter, and George and Ira Gershwin.
Ward partnered Marrazzo and flutist Lois Herbine in two lovely songs by Delage every bit as memorably as she entered into the high-camp world of soprano Manon Strauss Evrard in numbers by Poulenc, Satie, Weill and Roussel. Evrard’s flair for the over-the-top theatrical flash was a delightful addition to the program.
Sad to report, this concert was announced as the final one given in First Presbyterian Church. Most of next season’s concerts will be given in the Warden Theater of the Academy of Vocal Arts at 1920 Spruce St. First Presbyterian Church is an architectural gem of Norman Revival style, its stained glass windows and gracefully arching brickwork are superb, as are its acoustics and Paderewski-owned Steinway concert grand. And its pews are comfortable, to boot! AVA’s Warden Theater is cramped, stuffy, and uncomfortable — and there’s not an acceptable concert-level piano in the entire building. If this move doesn’t rate as suicidal, I don’t know what does.
David Hayes and the Philadelphia Singers marked Holy Week with performances of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata No. 182: “Himmelskonig, set willkommen” (King of Heaven, Be Welcomed) and James MacMillan’s “Seven Last Words from the Cross.” The concert took place on Saturday, April 16, in the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square. Despite the truly horrific weather outside, a sizable and enthusiastic audience filled the Victorian-Romanesque masterpiece, with far more than a handful of on-the-spot ticket purchsers adding to the choir’s season subscribers.
Born in 1959, MacMillan composed his “Seven Last Words from the Cross” between 1993 and 1994, incorporating into the seven phrases Jesus Christ uttered from the cross as found in the Gospels of Luke, John and Matthew several additional excerpts. All of the texts come together in the Scottish composer’s hands to form a musical setting that is far more dramatic in its narrative and visceral in its emotional delineation than is the norm in most composers’ settings of the Seven Last Words from the Cross.
It’s a major work from one of contemporary classical music’s most deservedly acclaimed masters.
Hayes and the Singers gave “Seven Last Words from the Cross” a sterling rendition Saturday evening. Pitch was immaculate, even in the face of daunting harmonies and textures, and diction was excellent so that the text was able to make its heart-rending impact on the listener as it is made even more potent through MacMillan’s superb score. Hayes was equally efficacious leading the string ensemble.
He and the Singers were less effective in the Bach. Here the choral textures were so thick and undifferentiated that Bach’s sublime counterpoint was rendered murky, at best, and sometimes completely indecipherable. Matters were only made worse by terribly slow tempi throughout. The two highpoints in the performance were Alyson Harvey’s solo singing in “Leget euch dem Heiland uter” (Prostrate yourselves before the Savior) and flautist Sonora Slocum’s obligato accompaniment of her. Harvey is a resident of West Mt. Airy and a longtime soloist at the Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Chestnut Hill. Organist Michael Stairs and cellist Vivian Barton Dozer offered exemplary continuo support.
West Mt. Airy’s Jeri Lynne Johnson will lead the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra in “Paris, When it Sizzled: Stravinsky, Milhaud and ‘Le Jazz Jot.’” The concert is set for 7:30 p.m., Thursday, April 28, in the Independence Seaport Museum at Penn’s Landing along the Delaware River. The program includes Darius Milhaud’s groundbreaking “Le creation du monde” (The Creation of the World), one of the first European classical works to utilize American Jazz as an integral part of its musical language, and Igor Stravinsky’s “Octet for Wind Instruments and Ragtime for 11 Instruments.” The concert is part of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts.
For ticket information, call 215-546-PIFA or visit www.blackpearlco.org.
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