Piffaro passes the torch at Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church

by Michael Caruso
Posted 10/20/22

Piffaro, Philadelphia’s Renaissance Band, opened its 2022-23 season of in-person concerts with a program entitled “Passing the Torch.”

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Piffaro passes the torch at Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church


Piffaro, Philadelphia’s Renaissance Band, opened its 2022-23 season of in-person concerts with a program entitled “Passing the Torch” Saturday, Oct. 1, at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. The concert’s subtitle referred to Priscilla Herreid taking over the helm of Piffaro succeeding its founders and co-directors Joan Kimball and Robert Wiemken, who retired at the end of last season.

If the events of recent years haven’t taught us all to be wary of making predictions concerning the future, they’ve taught us nothing. In this case, those of us who attended Saturday evening’s performance might be willing to venture the hope that if all goes as well for Piffaro in future seasons as it did in this concert, all will be well.

Piffaro’s current members are Priscilla Herreid (who studied at the Germantown Branch of Settlement Music School and two other branches before attending college), Grant Herreid, Greg Ingles and Erik Schmalz. Joining the band Saturday were Alexa Raine-Wright and Georgeanne Banker. Together they formed an ensemble that was characterized by timbral color and textural flexibility.

The result was playing that was potent and expressive. The roster of pieces proffered its own passing of the torch from the middle and late Renaissance to the early Baroque. Works by masters such as Praetorius, Obrecht, Lassus and Palestrina, and many others in between, offered a multi-faceted fabric of music that gave a tonal portrait of the lives of people of all strata during the decades of the late 16th and early 17th centuries across Europe.

Even more reassuring for longtime Piffaro lovers like myself was the continuation of the ensemble’s justly earned reputation for renditions that are both technically secure and polished as well as interpretations that ring with scholarly integrity and emotional intensity.

Piffaro will return to the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill for “Festa di Natale!” Saturday, Dec. 10, at 7:30 p.m. For more information call 215-235-8469 or visit www.piffaro.org.

Cantatas and chamber music

The following Friday evening, Oct. 7, the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill hosted the first recital in its “Cantatas and Chamber Music” series. The concert was a double-barrel event: it functioned as an introduction of the congregation’s new organist, Jeffrey DeVault to the greater Chestnut Hill community, and it featured one of the region’s pre-eminent musicians, David Kim, concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The program got off to a rousing start with DeVault’s stunning reading of Langlais’ “Te Deum” on the church’s Mander pipe organ. He balanced the score’s darker moments against its passages of shimmering brilliance to fill the house with throbbing tones.

But it was the program’s next piece of music that most caught my attention. Violinists the world over adore Ralph Vaughan Williams’ one-movement “The Lark Ascending” in both its violin/piano version and violin/symphony orchestra arrangement. So, in this year celebrating the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth, I wasn’t surprised to see this jewel on the program.

What did surprise me was the arrangement that Kim chose to perform: one by Paul Drayton for violin and an unaccompanied choir singing the words of the 19th century poem that inspired Vaughan Williams in the first place. In place of either piano or orchestra, the eight soloists of the church’s Gallery Choir proffered the full panoply of Vaughan Williams’ gorgeous modal harmonies, evoking the 1,000-year-plus history of English folk song. Not a single note was sung out of tune just as not a single phrase was sung with anything less than melting lyricism and immaculate blend.

Kim’s interpretation of the solo violin line was no less exemplary. His tone was meltingly mellow and sparklingly clear. It was as though one were hearing through music the opening paragraphs of a novel by Thomas Hardy. The congregation’s music director, Daniel Spratlan, conducted with firm sensitivity.

At the Kimmel Center

The Kimmel Center hosted both of Philadelphia’s major instrumental ensembles between Oct. 7 and 10. The magisterial Philadelphia Orchestra played a program of music by Ravel, Price and Strauss in Verizon Hall while the intimate Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia performed major works by Mozart and Tchaikovsky.

Cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio was the magnificent soloist in Tchaikovsky’s “Variations on a Rococo Theme.” She caught the melancholy lyricism at the heart of every work the Russian master composed as well as its counterbalancing brilliance.

Music director Dirk Brosse accompanied her admirably and then led a stunning rendition of Mozart’s penultimate Symphony No. 40 in G minor.

The Philadelphia Orchestra’s originally announced program was intended to open with Ravel’s “La Valse” and close with Rachmaninoff’s “The Bells.” When the latter was dropped, I had hoped that Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasie on a Theme of Thomas Tallis” might have been the replacement. No such luck. It was Strauss’ tried-and-true “Suite from Der Rosenkavalier.” Oh well – at least “La Valse” was fabulous.

You can contact NOTEWORTHY at Michael-caruso@comcast.net. To read more of NOTEWORTHY, visit chestnuthilllocal.com.