Concert Review: The Chestnut Street Singers “The Northern Wild” is mightily impressive
The Chestnut Street Singers kicked off their 2017-2018 season last night with their concert The Northern Wild featuring songs of earth under foot and sky over head, with music by Sibelius, Tormis, Elgar, and Ešenvalds. I am sorry to say that I had never heard of this group before attending the concert, but now that I have experienced The Northern Wild I will definitely be checking in with the Chestnut Street Singers again.
The music choices for the program were excellent, ranging from boisterous to introspective while creating a brilliant dramatic arc across the entire program. When I saw the number of pieces in the concert, I was concerned about the length, but at just under 90 minutes with intermission, the pacing of the evening was perfect. I was unfamiliar with many of the composers featured in the program, but the expertly written program notes provided enough information to appreciate the presented works without droning on excessively. For anyone who attends a concert where program notes are provided, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of reading the program notes. It provides context and backstory for what you are about to experience.
As far as the performance, the Chestnut Street Singers is a mightily impressive ensemble. When the concert began, I was instantly blown away by their rhythmic vitality, uniform diction, and clean distinct vocal lines. There was a particular exposed bass line toward the end of the first piece that could have easily been muddy, and I applaud their success in executing pieces that are technically and musically fraught with peril. Many times I found myself thinking, “Holy crap, this is challenging repertoire,” and the ensemble was not only able to technically execute the difficult passages, their musical sensibility and stylistic treatment of phrasing and dynamic color were so freaking satisfying to listen to.
I would be hard-pressed to choose a favorite piece from the evening, but I will say that the warm, luxurious harmonies juxtaposed with the ethereal yet persistent sonority of tuned water glasses featured in Ešenvalds’s “Stars” was an aural treat and the perfect way to close the evening.
As I was driving home, I recalled a time when a colleague of mine and I were sharing popular music that we liked, and I played Rufus Wainwright’s “Release the Stars” for him. His reaction to hearing it was, “Thank God someone is out there making music like this.” To be honest, I had the same reaction after hearing the Chestnut Street Singers. I am so incredibly thankful they are here in Philadelphia and are adding something truly special to the Philadelphia music scene.
Overall, my impression of the Chestnut Street Singers as an ensemble are:
- Their concert programming is interesting, engaging, accessible, and frankly, perfect.
- They strive for a chiaroscuro-esque balance between rhythmic vitality and inherent musical lyricism in every piece they approach (THANK YOU!!!).
- They are outstanding musicians that choose challenging yet accessible literature and, perhaps even more importantly, understand how to perform that literature.
- Their diction and harmonies sparkle in a crystalline fashion.
- You should go hear them for yourself.
There is one more chance to experience The Northern Wild:
Sunday, November 19 at 3 PM
First Unitarian Church
2125 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, PA