Concerts with whispers of weather warnings

Buxtehude programs "End Times"; Philadelphia Singers evoke "jagged cedars."

Great music often takes on shades of its surroundings, which is why at least two weekend concerts seemed to be issuing veiled warnings about the impending storm.

The end of the world was the topic of the Buxtehude Consort's program Saturday at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill. No mentions of hurricanes were heard, but "Heaven, earth, air and sea prepare themselves to exact revenge" was how G.F. Telemann (1681-1767) began one of his cantatas, and you know he wasn't just riffing on Weather Channel hysteria.

Then on Sunday, the Philadelphia Singers' "Snapshots From an American Century" at Christ Church on Rittenhouse Square featured Vincent Persichetti's Winter Cantata (Op. 97), chock-full of weather imagery in concise verse ("Through jagged cedars rips the winter blast . . . .") Immediately afterward, I was buying flashlight batteries at 7-Eleven.

Both programs offered plenty to take home, especially the Philadelphia Singers concert, most of which probably was unfamiliar even among choral music enthusiasts. Every piece was a significant discovery, made all the more obvious by the stature of the performances. Now beginning its 40th season, the Singers under David Hayes have entered a new era of excellence, especially given that most of Sunday's music trafficked in ambiguous tonalities and only one piece was grounded by accompanying instruments.

The jewel of the program was the 1965 Persichetti, which is based on a chord whose inner workings blurred any typical sense of harmonic direction. Just as the words - translated haiku - seem to be capsules of a much larger experience, the 12 individual movements rarely imposed upon them any artificial sense of harmonic conclusion. The composer never resorted to cheap word-painting, but seemed to enter into the essence of the natural phenomenon being portrayed, with some help from spare flute and marimba accompaniment.

An Italian Renaissance undercurrent ran through much of the rest of the program. The six-movement 1987 Madrigali by Morten Lauridsen was leaner and more rhythmically driven than some of his lush later works, which suited the visceral passion of the 16th-century texts. Randall Thompson, though preoccupied with madrigals of that period, chose to set the words of the ancient Roman poet Horace in Odes of Horace. Written between 1924 and 1954, most of the six pieces strive for picturesque mellifluousness, a musical counterpart to the Arcadian visions of Maxfield Parrish.

Elliott Carter was thinking along madrigalist lines when he set two Emily Dickinson poems. In the second, "Musicians Wrestle Everywhere" from 1947, the composer embarks on his aesthetic of traffic-jam counterpoint, though not at the expense of the words. Aaron Copland went back to Genesis with his extended work In the Beginning, which slims down his unmistakable harmonies in a solidly wrought sense of narrative. Over my 12 years of hearing the Philadelphia Singers, this is the concert that most distinguished itself on every level.

The Buxtehude Consort's "End Times" program featured two of New York City's best concert singers, soprano Molly Quinn and mezzo-soprano Virginia Warnken. Both displayed authoritative vocalism and lively text interpretation, backed by an often-sparkling instrumental ensemble employing the fast tempos that accommodate chorales sung not by the usual chorus but with one voice to a part.

In the Bach cantatas Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen (BWV 56) and Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust (BWV 170) the composer experimented with the gray areas between aria and recitative. Telemann's cantata Es sind schon die letzten Zeiten is one of his better works, depicting Judgment Day with matter-of-fact earnestness. It's here that bass-baritone John Fowler, the Consort's founder, emerged as the potent singer he was not in his dull reading of Bach's BWV 56.


Contact David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.