Piffaro revives the music of South America on the Hill
Mendelssohn Chorus Concert
Dominick DiOrio conducted the Mendelssohn Chorus of Philadelphia in performances of the “Requiem Mass,” Opus 9 (1947) of Maurice Durufle and “Messiahs: False and True” (2014) by native Philadelphian Rex Isenberg Saturday, May 6. The concert took place in the First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, 21st and Walnut Streets in Center City Philadelphia, where a virtually full house heard convincing renditions of two powerful pieces of choral music.
Even more so than its chronological predecessor, Gabriel Faure’s “Requiem Mass,” Durufle’s setting of the traditional Latin liturgy of the “Missa pro-Defunctis” (“Mass of the Dead”) of the Roman Catholic Church is almost completely based on the melodies of Gregorian Chant. Its harmonies were not set according to major/minor tonality but, rather, to the strangely and mysteriously evocative modal harmonies that are based upon the Medieval plainsong codified by Pope Gregory the Great in around 600 A.D.
DiOrio led his choristers and organ accompanist Clara Gerdes Bartz is a stunning interpretation of this modern masterpiece. The chorus’ singing was both supple and powerful, and Bartz employed the countless woodwind and string registrations of First Presbyterian’s legendary pipe organ to symphonic effect. The Church’s resonant acoustics, of a piece with its exemplary Gothic Revival architecture, proffered clear yet warm support. It’s a mystery to me why First Presbyterian Church is so rarely employed as a concert venue in a city with so few fine downtown performance sites.
Isenberg’s “Messiahs” is a tad too long for its own good. Among its ten movements are some of the loveliest contemporary choral music I’ve ever heard. Unfortunately, those movements also include more than a few ham-fisted pronouncements better forgotten if not never heard in the first place.