Arts Blog Review of Angels from on High

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By Sharon Torello

A couple weeks ago I wrote a blog praising the interesting program format for a holiday concert presented by a choral ensemble, Cantus Novus.  This Saturday I discovered a very familiar format when I attended the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia’s holiday concert.  As it turns out, I should not have been surprised, for the connection is clear, and the similarity can be seen as a complement to Alan Harler, artistic director of the Mendelssohn Club.  The artistic director of Cantus Novus, John P. Leonard, earned his masters at the Temple University Boyer College of Music and Dance where Harler was Director of Choral Activities.  In addition, Leonard was a participant in Mendelssohn Club’s apprenticeship program under Harler’s direction.  Leonard was apparently a very attentive student,  so rather than repeat myself, I suggest that you follow this link to learn more about the programming format that I found so compelling.

The Mendelssohn Club is approaching its 140th year; 24 under the leadership of Alan Harler.  Rather than resting on their laurels and coasting on tried but true audience favorites, this large choral group  is constantly challenging themselves and their audiences with new and unknown music.  Before you shudder and move onto another page, consider the music that is introduced and the grace in which it appears.  Harler knows his audience and he’s not about to let them run out the door with incomprehensible music.  On the other hand, playing dusty old museum pieces would discredit the future of classical music and fail to recognize the importance of contemporary composers and the beauty of their works.  For example, Andrea Clearfield‘s ambitious “Tse Go La” cantata was premiered this spring by the Mendelssohn Club along with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Girlchoir.  Though this was one of the larger commissions, their dedication to new music is demonstrated by the 54 other works have been commissioned by the Mendelssohn Club under Harler’s leadership.  Many of their commissions are granted to local composers, like Clearfield, thus enriching the cultural contributions of the Philadelphia region.

The Mendelssohn Club has presented its holiday concert for 25 consecutive years at the beautiful St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Chestnut Hill.  As a well established tradition it felt a bit like a homecoming, and the pews were packed with audience members who clearly had been there before.  The program began with a new comission and premiere of Donald St. Pierre’s “In the Company of Angels”.  References to the traditional carol “Angels, We Have Heard on High” emerged as the work progressed until it completely morphed into a sing along of that carol.  The seamless transition was unique and instantly engaging to the audience.

The concert contained six well known carols designated as sing-alongs that were interspersed with lesser known works performed by the chorus, Mendelssohn Brass, pipe organ, or any combination.  The brass quintet was comprised of top notch area musicians and they were astoundingly good.  Perhaps raising the bar even higher was the stellar performance of well known organist, Michael Stairs.  He graciously took a supporting role for much of the concert but doing so successfully is deceptively difficult.  The pipe organ could overpower even the large chorus, as it rightfully did during the organ showcase piece of Louis Vierne’s “Mess Solennelle, Op. 16”.  Creating supporting registration to accompany quieter passages, or just the brass quintet, required sensitivity of the music and familiarity with the instrument.  Stairs excelled in all the various roles demanded of him throughout the concert with clarity and vision.

Harler challenged the audience throughout the program to little known treats and the audience welcomed all of it.  They enthusiastically sang along in harmony then listened attentively to a wide variety of music that one would not expect in a holiday program.  A few whispered “wow”s were heard after the lofty and inspirational “A Wonderous Birth” by little known russian composer, Georgy Sviridov.  This introduction to Sviridov left me wishing to hear more, but YouTube turned up a surprisingly small selection.  Unique transitions were deployed, sometimes linking works with a common chord, other times seamlessly running songs together without a break.  Rather than a collection of individual songs, this concert was presented as a connected whole, that flowed and worked together as a unit.

Disclaimer: This article is an observation from the viewpoint of a “regular member” of the audience, not a critical review.

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