by Michael Caruso
As the organist, choir director, and music director at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Zach Hemenway automatically occupies a position of prominence, not just in Chestnut Hill but in all of Greater Philadelphia. Both St. Paul’s Church and the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, the other Episcopal parish “on the Hill,” are among the leading parishes in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, especially regarding their music programs. Probably only St. Mark’s Church downtown occupies a similar position as an active parish with an excellent musical establishment.
For those of us who are fans of Hemenway’s organ playing and choral conducting, the last three weekends have offered a trio of opportunities to hear him in different settings. On Sunday, Feb. 10, Hemenway led the final Choral Evensong before the start of Lent at St. Paul’s Church. The following Sunday, Feb. 17, he was organist for Choral Roman Vespers for the First Sunday of Lent at Old St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Society Hill. Finally, on Sunday, Feb. 24, Hemenway performed a solo organ recital on the mighty Aeolian-Skinner at St. Paul’s Church. Each was a success.
The Feb. 10 Choral Evensong was presided over by St. Paul’s rector, the Very Rev. E. Clifford Cutler. Singing under Hemenway’s direction were the parish’s combined Trebles and Adult choristers. The afternoon’s two major works were Herbert Murrill’s settings of the “Magnificat” (My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord) and the “Nunc Dimittis” (Lord, now lettest thou they servant depart in peace). The words of the “Magnificat” were taken by Anglican reformers from the Latin Vespers while the latter text comes from Compline, which follows Vespers in the Liturgies of the Hours. Murrill was a prominent Anglican composer of the first half of the 20th century and wrote expressive choral music for the traditional services of the Church of England.
Perhaps the afternoon’s finest work, however, was Ralph Vaughan Williams’ anthem, “Let all the world in every corner sing.” The great English composer not only delivers the text but deepens its understanding through eloquent tone-painting and musical development.
Hemenway’s masterful conducting of his 70-plus combined choirs was remarkable, even against the standard of professional-based choruses. Maintaining an unblemished tonal blend is difficult among adult singers. To add into the choral mix voices of youngsters creates an almost impossible challenge. Yet Hemenway met that challenge and triumphed.
Hemenway was the organist for Old St. Joseph’s Catholic Church’s Lenten Choral Vespers, Feb. 17, presided over by its pastor, Father Daniel Ruff. He played Bach’s Chorale Prelude: “Erbarm dich mein O Herre Gott” and accompanied the church’s Schola Cantorum in musical settings of three Psalms, one Epistle reading and Leo Nester’s setting of the “Magnificat.”
The organ at Old St. Joe’s was originally built by E.M. Skinner for St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Germantown and was only recently installed at the church. It is similar to the Aeolian-Skinner at St. Paul’s Church, both designed in the American symphonic/romantic tradition.
The difference for Hemenway was more the venue than the repertoire. Whereas St. Paul’s Church is substantial in size, Old St. Joe’s is a virtual chapel in comparison. In fact, it was referred to in colonial maps of Philadelphia as either a “popish” or “romish” chapel. The current structure, built in 1837, boasts the region’s most resonant acoustics, so an organist accustomed to filling a large church without resonant acoustics has to pull back so as not to overwhelm a congregation in a smaller one. Hemenway accomplished this feat superbly.
SOLO ORGAN RECITAL
Hemenway really came into his own Feb. 24, presenting a solo organ recital on St. Paul’s magnificent Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ. Before a large audience, he played Tournemire’s Improvisation on the “Te Deum,” two chorale preludes by Bach, settings of Psalm 23 by Sweelinck and Howells, Franck’s “Chorale No. 3,” a chorale prelude by Brahms, Virgil Fox’s arrangement of the Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts,” and Dupre’s “Evocation, III: Allegro Deciso.”
Hemenway projected the shimmering, silvery timbres of the Tournemire. In both the Franck and the Dupre, he showcased the vast orchestral palette of St. Paul’s organ. But for me, Hemenway’s loveliest rendition was that given Fox’s disarmingly unaffected arrangement of “Simple Gifts.” The lush harmonies were delivered through sumptuous registrations that surrounded the beloved hymn tune with a glowing aureole of angelic voices.