After 8 months, Choral Evensong returns to St. Paul's

by Michel Caruso
Posted 10/30/20

After a hiatus of eight months, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, brought back its Choral Evensong Sunday, Oct. 18. Conducted by the parish’s music director, Andrew Kotylo, and …

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After 8 months, Choral Evensong returns to St. Paul's

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After a hiatus of eight months, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, brought back its Choral Evensong Sunday, Oct. 18. Conducted by the parish’s music director, Andrew Kotylo, and featuring four vocal soloists, I experienced the singing and readings via the technology of “live streaming.”

Often referred to as a “treasure of Anglicanism,” the Evening Service of the Church of England was a masterstroke of Thomas Cranmer, the first Archbishop of Canterbury in King Henry VIII’s newly independent national church early in the 16th century.

Although now freed from the control of the Pope, Cranmer nonetheless created Evensong by combining the Roman Catholic liturgies of Vespers and Compline. Alongside the “Magnificat” and “Nunc Dimittis” of the former and latter, respectively, he added seasonal Psalms, an Offertory, the “Apostles Creed” and prayers to produce a biblically supported liturgy.

Evensong was also ripe for choral settings of those texts, which is precisely what blossomed during the 19th century Anglo-Catholic movement at Oxford University. The result was a plethora of beautiful settings for parish choirs of the Virgin Mary’s exaltation and St. Simeon’s farewell.

But settings of Evensong graced the Church of England from the start. Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) was already one of England’s preeminent composers of sacred choral music when Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) ascended to the throne in 1558 and began the process of the complete and lasting separation between the English and Roman Churches. He was born a Catholic and remained one until his death. In the spirit of respecting another’s religious persuasion, the Queen permitted Tallis to retain his allegiance to the old faith while commissioning him to compose music for the new.

One of the results of this enviable compromise was Tallis’ unaccompanied “Dorian Service,” named after one of the seven Gregorian chant modes (the octave of white keys on a piano from D to D). Set in English for four voices (soprano-alto-tenor-bass), its unaffected textural eloquence and powerful harmonic simplicity attest to the viability of the new English-language liturgy as an endless fount of inspiration for great choral music.

Kotylo and his vocal soloists projected the effortless flow of melody and harmony within the structure of the ebullient text of the “Magnificat,” then switched gears for the more somber and introspective mood of the “Nunc Dimittis.” To fill out the musical roster, Kotylo chose Edward Bairstow’s “Save Us, O Lord” for the Offertory anthem. It’s dark and demanding. While the singing in the Tallis was expert from start to finish — immaculate tuning and balance — there were occasional stumbles of the ensemble in the Bairstow.

For those of you whose appetite for hearing great sacred choral music isn’t met by “live stream” and who still hanker for an in-person performance of choral singing, I’ve found a viable option. The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Rosemont, is now offering “Sung Mass, Rite I,” Sundays at 10:30 a.m.

Matthew Glandorf is the parish’s music director, and his vocal soloists perform a setting of either the Latin Ordinary of the Mass or an English Communion Service, along with an Anglican chant setting of the day’s Psalm and an Offertory Anthem. The Oct. 18 selections included Hans Leo Hassler’s “Missa secunda” and James MacMillan’s “O sing unto the Lord a new song,” taken from Psalm 96. They were sung superbly.

COPLAND and WAGNER.

The Philadelphia Orchestra continued its online season Oct. 22-25 with a program that included music by Vivian Fung, Aaron Copland and Richard Wagner. Music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducted the American premiere of Fung’s “Prayer,” the original chamber music version of Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” Suite and Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll” from the stage of the Mann Center for the Performing Arts.

In a short introduction to the performance of her work, Fung explained that she had based “Prayer” on chants composed by the 12th century nun, Hildegard von Bingen. Wagnerian in tonal language, “Prayer” conjures up the sound world of “Das Rheingold,” the first of the four operas that comprise Wagner’s “The Ring of the Nibelung.” The score makes evocative use of a broadly based chamber orchestra to produce waves of colors both brightly tinted and darkly hued. Nezet-Seguin and the Philadelphians played it sensitively.

Although less familiar than the full orchestral version, the original chamber arrangement of Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” (composed for the Martha Graham Dance Company) miraculously reveals the contrapuntal intricacies, harmonic sophistication and rhythmic vibrancy of Copland’s masterpiece. Nezet-Seguin led the Orchestra in a scintillating interpretation.

Even when you cut Wagner’s music down to accessible size, there’s still his singularly oppressive use of romantic emotionalism. Even a mere 20 minutes or so leaves you with the urge to scream, “Enough already!” But it was played beautifully.

You can reach NOTEWORTHY at Michael-caruso@comcast.net.

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