St. Paul’s holds ‘Lessons and Carols’ online, Philadelphia Orchestra closes season with Christmas songs

by Michael Caruso
Posted 12/31/20

In a year characterized by so many uncertainties, one Christmastime tradition was carried on in spite of the multitude of challenges surrounding it. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, …

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St. Paul’s holds ‘Lessons and Carols’ online, Philadelphia Orchestra closes season with Christmas songs

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In a year characterized by so many uncertainties, one Christmastime tradition was carried on in spite of the multitude of challenges surrounding it. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, may have had to change the manner in which it celebrated its annual “Lessons and Carols” Dec. 20, but in a show of the appreciation given of tradition by the entire Anglican Communion, of which the parish is a member, music director Andrew Kotylo conducted his choristers in a beautiful musical Advent of the Birth of Jesus.

Kotylo, himself, bracketed the singing and readings of scriptural passages with an impressive selection of prelude and postlude music at the organ. Despite the absence (due to a major restoration project) of the acclaimed Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ that grace’s St. Paul’s sanctuary, Kotylo proffered at the digital organ a kaleidoscope of shimmering colors and dazzling textures to first set the mood of expectation and then celebrate the arrival of the long-promised Messiah in the human form of a babe in Bethlehem.

Rather than limit himself and his singers to the reduced numbers required by the COVID-19 pandemic, Kotylo interspersed performances that were pre-recorded several weeks earlier with still photographs and audio recordings of “Lessons and Carols” from 2019. The latter included a sublime rendition of the traditional opening of the service, the carol “Once in Royal David’s City.” Other gems included “A Stable Lamp Is Lighted,” “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks” and “A Tender Shoot.”

Even though their numbers were smaller than usual, the parish’s choristers gave winning interpretations of “Good King Wenceslas,” “What Sweeter Music,” “Dormi, Jesu,” “Up Good Christian Folk and Listen,” “Silent Night,” “The Little Road to Bethlehem,” “Adam lay ybounden,” “Huron Carol” and “Ave Maria.” Kotylo elicited singing that was both full-bodied and sensitive, glowing with gentle tones and caressing with lyrical phrasing.  

“Lessons and Carols” remains one of the jewels of the musical patrimony of the Anglican Communion. In some ways, it’s the Advent season’s version of “Choral Evensong.”  Thomas Cramner, the first Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of All England, created the “Evening Service” for the first Book of Common Prayer in the 16th century by combining the Roman liturgies of “Vespers” and “Compline.” “Choral Evensong” was conceived as part of the 19th century’s Anglo-Catholic movement to restore many of the liturgical traditions of the Pre-Reformation Church in England.

In the wake of the horrific carnage of World War I, the archbishops and bishops of the English Church marked the first Advent at the war’s conclusion with “Lessons and Carols.” The “granddaddy” of all services of “Lessons and Carols” is that celebrated on Christmas Eve at the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge. Fortunately for Anglophiles the world over, BBC-TV broadcast the 2006 installment. It’s available on YouTube.

We may not be fighting our way through the military horrors of World War I, but the continuing ravages of COVID-19 are every bit as physically debilitating for our country and our world. Celebrations of hope, such as “Lessons and Carols,” provide for many of us a well-needed solace this season.

HOLIDAY CONCERT

The Philadelphia Orchestra closed out the first half of its “virtual” 2020-21 season with a concert of holiday favorites. Led by assistant conductor Erina Yashima, featuring narrator Charlotte Blake Aston, and recorded on the stage of the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall, the program efficaciously conjured up the “Spirit of Christmas” in a concert that was accessible through the end of the season.

Yashima led a vibrant reading of the “Crackle Waltz” from Humperdinck’s opera, “Hansel and Gretel.” The feel of a wintry Vienna coursed through the music under the guidance of her inspired baton.

For all of us who are missing terribly the Pennsylvania Ballet’s annual production of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” at the Academy of Music, the Philadelphians offered a wonderfully satisfying substitute through selections of the score, Aston’s energetic narration of the ballet’s libretto spiced with personal remembrances from her own childhood, and young, talented dancers from the Rock School of Ballet Education.

Tchaikovsky’s superb orchestration in general and that for “The Nutcracker” in particular guarantees a host of stellar solos for the woodwinds. Orchestra players from that choir giving exquisite performances included flutist Patrick Williams, oboist Philippe Tondre and clarinetist Samuel Caviezel. The battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King brought out the best from the percussion battery, and the strings under concertmaster David Kim’s leadership glistened magically throughout.

Despite the incredible challenges facing the musicians and administration of the Philadelphia Orchestra during this dreadful pandemic, all have come together to offer local music lovers the profoundly needed spiritual medicine of great music performed in great fashion via the technology of “virtual” concerts. Never in my lifetime has the solace of beautiful music been more deeply needed and sincerely appreciated.

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

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