Chestnut Hill conductor to lead Britten’s ‘Ceremony of Carols’

by Michael Caruso
Posted 11/30/23

Chestnut Hill conductor Donald Meineke will lead in a performance of Benjamin Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols.”

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Chestnut Hill conductor to lead Britten’s ‘Ceremony of Carols’


Chestnut Hill conductor Donald Meineke, the artistic director of Choral Arts Philadelphia, will lead the ensemble in a performance of Benjamin Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols.” The concert, entitled “Carols by Candlelight,” is scheduled for Friday, Dec. 1, at 7 p.m., in the historic Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity, Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia.

Holy Trinity is of local historic importance on two counts. First, it was one of the earliest examples of the 19th-century Victorian Romanesque Revival style of architecture in America. Its architect, John Notman, also designed St. Mark’s and St. Clement’s Episcopal (Anglo-Catholic) Churches.

Second, its rector at the time, the Rev. Phillips Brooks, composed the text for the Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” upon returning from a tour of the Holy Land. With only a few days notice, the parish’s music director, Lewis Redner, composed the tune.

Meineke explained, “The concert will open with the featured work, ‘A Ceremony of Carols.’ During my time in New York City, it was a half-century tradition at the parish where I served to sing this work, so it is a great personal joy to return to it after several years without having it anchor my holiday musical musings.

“The arch of the program begins,” he continued, “with these wonderful medieval English poems set by Britten, then followed by another English medieval carol, ‘The Boar’s Head Carol’ for men’s voices and then an ethereal setting of the text ‘Gloria in Excelsis Deo’ for treble voices by the Renaissance composer, Robert Cooper. These will be followed by Britten’s ‘A Hymn to the Virgin’.”

The latter half of the concert features music by 20th-century American composers, Morten Lauridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium,” four of Alfred Burt’s carols, and a setting of “The First Noel” by Paul Halley.

“I’m particularly excited to offer the Burt carols,” he added. “His father was an Episcopal priest and began the family tradition of sending a Christmas card to family, friends and parishioners consisting of an original text and musical composition. In 1942, Bates Burt asked his son to take over the musical composition of the carol. Alfred wrote 15 carols between 1942 and 1954, the year of his untimely death at the age of 33.”

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AVA’s ‘Anna Bolena’

The Academy of Vocal Arts presented Gaetano Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” Nov. 11-28. In a mounting that was conducted by Steven White and stage directed by Christopher Mattaliano, AVA proffered local opera lovers the chance to enjoy a rarely-performed gem of the “bel canto” repertoire.

Staging an operatic spectacle within the tiny confines of AVA’s Warden Theater in Center City Philadelphia is always a challenge, especially if there are any choral numbers in the score. Stage director Mattaliano met that challenge beautifully by stripping down the stage action to a minimum and focusing solely on the libretto’s main characters.

Val Starr costumed those powerful individuals in historically accurate garb while dressing the chorus in black. And, in a stroke of “less is more,” Mattaliano used the choristers as a human curtain for scene changes.

Conductor White led the AVA Opera Orchestra with a firm yet sensitive hand. He elicited colorful playing from his musicians, derived beautiful yet dramatic singing from his young performers, and somehow managed to keep the decibel level within reasonable bounds considering the small space of the Warden Theater.

Soprano Manli Deng essayed the opera’s title role with vocal command and theatrical conviction. She sang Donizetti’s treacherous tessitura for Anna Bolena with tonal beauty, dramatic phrasing, expert diction, and spot-on tuning. Her acting was equally efficacious. Although the historical Anne Boleyn was no one’s victim but her own, Deng invested her character with poignance.

Mezzo Jenny Anne Flory was her not-so-hapless foil, Giovanna (Jane) Seymour, eventually the third wife of King Henry VIII. She, too, sang with dazzling coloratura invested with emotional intensity. Once again in defiance of historical accuracy, she made Jane yet another victim of Henry’s beastly arrogance.

If anything, bass Cumhur Gorgun cut too appealing a figure as Enrico, Henry VIII. Even by the imaginative standards of the opera’s libretto and by this time in his life, Henry was about as attractive as a fatal case of the plague. Gorgun sang with resonant amplitude and struck the eye as a rather dashing young fellow. True – this is an unusual problem in opera -- so one can’t complain too much because Gorgun acted with focused energy.

Tenor Matthew Goodheart was a vocally thrilling and theatrically sympathetic Percy, Anna’s first love; mezzo Ariana Maubach was convincing in the trouser role of the musician Smeton; bass-baritone Yue Wu was a stalwart Lord Rochefort, Anna’s brother; and tenor Joshua Berg was a ringing Hervey, one of Henry’s henchmen.

AVA’s “Anna Bolena” was an altogether smashing success. It leads me to hope for “Maria Stuarda” and “Roberto Devereaux” – the next two operas in line in Donizetti’s “Three Tudor Queens” – to be produced.

For more information about AVA’s 2023-24 season, call 215-735-1685 or visit

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