by Michael Caruso
The Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Chestnut Hill, brought the Christmas season to a close Sunday, Jan. 6, with a Choral Evensong on the Feast of the Epiphany. In music by Max Reger, William Smith, Ivor Atkins, Peter Aston, Felix Mendelssohn and Louis Vierne, the parish’s music director, Erik Meyer, led his choir and played the organ in celebration of Christ’s Manifestation to the Gentiles in the Adoration of the Magi on the 12th and final day of Christmastide.
The musical program’s major works were two by Aston — his “Magnificat” and “Nunc Dimittis” — and Mendelssohn’s anthem, “When Jesus, Our Lord, was born in Bethlehem.” Meyer at the organ and his singers projected the straightforward declamation of the “Magnificat” (My soul doth magnify the Lord) and caught the gentle acceptance of the “Nunc Dimittis” (Lord, now lettest thou they servant depart in peace) through singing and playing of refined yet expressive lyricism and contrapuntal blend. The Mendelssohn was no less praiseworthy for the fine singing of soprano Krystiane Cooper, tenor Matthew Vickers, baritone Jerome Brandt and bass John Wentz.
Most impressive of all was Meyer’s performance of the final movement from Vierne’s “Organ Symphony No. 2.” Without diminishing the undeniable impact of the score’s tawdrier moments, he maintained so steady a flow of the work’s unfolding thematic development through inspired registrations that what can sometimes sound like slightly more than enjoyable junk morphed into serious romantic music. As an organist, myself, I was mightily impressed — technically, of course, but even more so musically.
The Philadelphia Orchestra’s Verizon Hall concert of Saturday, Jan. 12, might best be described as Mozart-times-three-minus-one. The program offered three scores but was performed without a conductor. It was one of those musical experiments that looked a tad better on paper than it sounded in performance.
The evening’s music-making got underway with perhaps Mozart’s most famous work, the “Serenade in G major,” subtitled “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” (A Little Night Music). Then England’s Imogen Cooper was the soloist in the “Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor.” After intermission, the short second half featured the “Symphony No. 25 in G minor.” Concertmaster David Kim was listed as “leader” in the Serenade and Symphony, while Cooper was the “leader” (from the keyboard) for the Concerto.
While there’s a certain superficial appeal to presenting concerts of Mozart’s music in the manner in which they were performed during the composer’s lifetime — that is, without the benefit of a conductor on a podium — it’s a far more daunting challenge than most fully appreciate or can pull of efficaciously. Musicians in Mozart’s day were not just accustomed to relying on either their concertmaster or the soloist to lead the ensemble; they were trained for that reality because that’s the way it was always done.
However, the absence of an individual interpretive personality during Saturday’s concert was painfully apparent most of all in “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.” The small contingent of string players, led by concertmaster David Kim, seemed to expend their focus more on keeping together and avoiding any mishaps of ensemble than on offering their audience any discernible level of expressive music-making. And without anyone to cue them regarding the appropriate balances to be struck by each section of violins, violas, cellos and basses, those balances drifted in and out of effective delineation.
Cooper struck me as spending most of her efforts attempting to keep her American Steinway concert grand from turning the Mozart Concerto into one by Rachmaninoff, the instrument’s natural habitat. If ever there was a time when the pianist should have been playing a Viennese Bosendorfer, this was it.
Only the Symphony No. 25 came off effectively Saturday evening. Here the Philadelphians allowed themselves — and trusted themselves — to make music beautifully, dramatically and expressively.