Music of the highest caliber at two churches on Hill

Note-Worthy October 18, 2013 0 Comments

Artists of The National Ballet of Canada in George Balanchine’s “Jewels.” (Photo by Bruce Zinger, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

Artists of The National Ballet of Canada in George Balanchine’s “Jewels.” (Photo by Bruce Zinger, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

by Michael Caruso

There are many reasons why Chestnut Hill remains one of the crowning jewels of Greater Philadelphia, but certainly one of the most persuasive is the ready availability of musical performances of the highest caliber found anywhere in the region. Sunday afternoon, Oct. 6, provided me with a perfect opportunity to substantiate this claim.

Tempesta di Mare, the region’s preeminent period instruments ensemble, performed a program entitled “The Classics Club” in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. Later in the afternoon, the Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in the-Fields celebrated its first Choral Evensong of the season. Both events drew large audiences that heard exemplary renditions of their respective rosters of music

CHORAL EVENSONG

The Anglican service of Evensong was formed by the combination of the Roman Catholic liturgies of Vespers and Compline in 1549 by Thomas Cranmer, the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury.

Erik Meyer, organist and choirmaster at St. Martin’s Church, chose an impressive program for the parish’s first Choral Evensong of the season. The liturgy opened and closed with a Church Sonata by Mozart. Charles Villiers Stanford’s setting of Psalm 145, Henry Smart’s “Magnificat” (My soul doth magnify the Lord) and “Nunc Dimittis” (Lord, now lettest thy servant depart in peace) and Johann Sebastian Bach’s Motet: “Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden” (Praise the Lord, all ye nations) filled out the musical offerings. Each and every one of the individual pieces is an exquisite example of its form. Each received a performance worthy of any of the region’s professional choral and/or instrumental ensembles — or, for that matter, the musical establishment of any American cathedral, either Episcopalian or Catholic.

The choir of as many as 50 singers gave a lovely reading of Stanford’s Psalm 145. Linear balances were flawlessly maintained, diction was pristine and an “oh-so-English” feeling of reverence was caught in a manner that would have delighted the inhabitants of Downton Abbey, even Mr. Carson. Smart’s “Magnificat” deployed trumpet stops from St. Martin’s excellent pipe organ while his “Nunc Dimittis” offered a gentler tone.

I also found myself positing two questions: Would it be possible for Chestnut Hill’s three major musical churches — St. Martin’s, St. Paul’s Episcopal and Chestnut Hill Presbyterian — to join forces to create a “Chestnut Hill Bach Festival?” And wouldn’t it be wonderful if a local Catholic parish could celebrate Choral Roman Vespers once a month the way the two Episcopal churches celebrate Choral Evensong?

TEMPESTA DI MARE

The concept behind Tempesta di Mare’s program at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill was to surround the music of J.S. Bach with scores composed by musicians who either worked before him or while he was composing. The problem, of course, is that none of Bach’s predecessors or contemporaries measure up to his genius and, therefore, sound woefully inferior.

Such was certainly the case Sunday afternoon with Alessandro Scarlatti and Antonio Vivaldi, whose “Sinfonia di Concerto Grosso VIII in G” and “Concerto for Strings in D,” respectively, were played prior to the performance given Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D.” Upon hearing the first notes of the “Brandenburg,” I thought to myself and almost said out loud, “Finally, real music.” Bach’s music is not so much of his own time and place — the German baroque — but timeless and universal; not confined to the instruments that play it but rising to the level of pure musical art.

PA BALLET’s 50th

The Pennsylvania Ballet will open its 50th anniversary season this weekend with performances of George Balanchine’s “Jewels” in the Academy of Music. The three movements are “Emeralds” to music by Faure, “Rubies” to music by Stravinsky and “Diamonds” to music by Tchaikovsky.

West Mt. Airy’s Roy Kaiser has been a member of the troupe since 1979 and its artistic director since 1995. When I asked him if he had ever imagined, when he joined the company, if he would be here to celebrate its 50th anniversary, he replied that he hadn’t. “But I’m stubborn,” he explained, “and I still believe in whatever role I’ve played in the company, whether it was as a dancer or ballet master or artistic director. Every role has been incredibly fulfilling, especially I think because of the tremendous talent this company has always attracted.”

Jewels” will be performed Oct. 17 and 18, 7:30 p.m.; Oct. 26, 2 and 8 p.m., and Oct. 27, 2 p.m. Call 215-551-7000 or visit www.paballet.org.

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