Review: A fine farewell for the Philadelphia Singers

Conductor David Hayes bows at the conclusion his final concert after 23 years with the Philadelphia Singers at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Rittenhouse Square. ( JEFF FUSCO / For the Philadelphia Inquirer )

No commemorative speeches. No plaques. No tear jerking. Artistic director David Hayes barely announced the encore at the farewell concert of the Philadelphia Singers, going out of business after 43 years, but let the occasion speak with music, the best performance coming last - Rachmaninoff's Vespers, the "Rejoice O Virgin" section.

Maybe Hayes was focusing his energy, having survived last week's Amtrak derailment in reportedly functional though bruised form, which had him walking on and off stage with care.

More likely, the goodbye simply didn't need to be prolonged, even though the audience at the Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square lingered to chat on this rainy night where, outside, the rest of the world was desperately seeking some graduation ceremony or another.

The choir - whose leadership cited debt and loss of a significant grant as reasons for dissolving - has always had a professional core. And that core sang the lion's share of the concert, with challenging works such as a daringly animated excerpt from the Randall Thompson Requiem - unaccompanied. Elliott Carter, a daunting name to many, was represented by his Heart Not So Heavy as Mine and Musicians Wrestle Everywhere, both thoroughly congenial, with conventionally soaring treble lines and increasingly complex musical traffic underneath.

Jennifer Higdon's Amazing Grace has seemed somewhat thin in past encounters, and it did on Saturday - but in a good way, with the words gently reshuffled to create a rocking ostinato and ending with a calming "Om" that was needed for this potentially downbeat occasion. Also wonderful was soloist contralto Susan Weinman, who inventively shaped one phrase after another.

The full-throated echt-British classic Charles Hubert Hastings Parry's I Was Glad showed the niche the Philadelphia Singers has occupied: A cultivated adult-choir sound that easily envelops whatever church or auditorium it's in. The downside of that sensibility was apparent in Bach's motet Singet dem Herrn ein Neues Lied (BWV 225), heard in Hayes' first concert in 1991 at the head of the organization. It was dowdy compared to the more fleet, lean baroque performance heard nowadays, and more generally showed the group's limitations with scaling back into a more precise sound.

Five hymns, arranged by Robert Shaw and Alice Parker, arrived with their own particular vocal tint. It's here, and in the Rachmaninoff encore, that one most clearly heard Hayes' evolution. He wasn't yet 30 when appointed music director after the death of founder Michael Korn. And though he was consistently brilliant when preparing the chorus for difficult modern-music pieces then conducted by others with the Philadelphia Orchestra, his own concerts with the group had a slower evolution, sometimes marred by using chorus members for solo duties that really required an outside hire.

What one has heard increasingly over the years, though, is an extraordinary instinct for finding the right expressive color for any given passage and making it happen at a high vocal level. Particularly in the Rachmaninoff, the juxtaposition of such colors created an almost three-dimensional effect, like viewing the unfolding levels of architectural detail in a great cathedral.