Channeling Hildegard
Tom Purdom, Broad Street Review
Originally published on March 28, 2017 at
The Chestnut Street Singers’ latest concert presented one of the most artistically uncompromising programs I’ve encountered. The concert created a contemplative mood and the Singers resolutely avoided the temptation to liven it up with a few showy numbers. One of the pieces supported the chorus with a drum, but it stayed well inside the Singers’ deliberately narrow emotional parameters. The result was a program addressing some of the deepest feelings satisfied by music.

Meet Hildegard von Bingen

The concert celebrated the life of 12th-century Catholic mystic Hildegard von Bingen, the first woman composer whose scores have survived to our own time. Placed in a convent at an early age, Hildegard became an abbess, musician, poet, and one of the leading intellectuals of her era. She is even considered the founder of German natural history.

The program included four pieces by Hildegard and ten by eight modern composers, all but one still living. Hildegard’s compositions were chants on traditional sacred texts and her own religious poems. The modern composers took their words from Hildegard’s texts, standard Christian religious texts, and passages from Sufi mystics and the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore.

For me, the unifying mood among all the pieces is depicted in Albert Schweitzer’s phrase “reverence for life.” The differences between the texts’ specific religious and philosophical beliefs are irrelevant. They all share a mystical sense of communion with the eternal mystery surrounding us.

Many surprises

The Chestnut Street Singers specialize in a capella chorus music, one of the most difficult forms a composer can take on. When a chorus is accompanied by instruments, a composer can maintain interest and add color by throwing in the flash of a trumpet or the warmth of strings. When a chorus sings unaccompanied, the composer must work with rhythm, the interaction between different sections, and the timbres and contrasts created by different combinations of voices. The composers on this program might bear names as unfamiliar as Ruth Byrchmore (b. 1966) or Daniel Elder (b. 1986), but their pieces created an afternoon filled with little surprises: a short, unexpected soprano solo or the timbre created by a blend of soprano and tenor voices.

The finale, Bach’s Third Orchestral Suite, was a beautiful example of imaginative a cappella writing. It’s built around a mantra, “Christ within me,” repeated several times at the beginning. Different sections repeat the mantra as other sections take up a litany of phrases like “Christ before me, Christ when I lie down, Christ in the eye that sees me.” Pärt plays with different combinations of voices the way a good orchestra composer plays with a set of variations.

The Chestnut Street Singers call themselves a “cooperative chorus.” They take turns conducting and plan programs through a communal process that involves a lot of discussion and emailing. They’ve been at it for five years, and the process consistently produces unusual programs stocked with high-quality music. Their last program presented moving pieces on exile and immigration. Their next concerts, on June 4 and 5, 2017, will center on 20th-century Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály.

Songs for the tempest tossed
Tom Purdom, Broad Street Review
Originally published on November 15, 2016 at
The Chestnut Street Singers continue to present programs that develop interesting themes and feature music that’s frequently unusual and always worth hearing. Their latest concert focused on a particularly timely subject: migration and displacement.

Some harrowing selections

In the United States, we tend to picture our immigrant ancestors as sturdy people who headed for a new country determined to work hard and seize new opportunities. It’s easy to forget that migration also involves loss, as people leave friends, families, and familiar customs. Emma Lazarus’s sonnet “The New Colossus” calls the Statute of Liberty the “Mother of Exiles,” and exile is not a condition people voluntarily choose.

The Singers looked at that aspect of migration with pieces that ranged across the centuries, as their programs usually do. The 14 selections on the program included the 15th-century German classic “Innsbruck, I must leave you”; a modern choral setting of “Wayfaring Stranger”; and a harrowing 2010 piece that plays like a mini-opera.

That piece, Christopher Marshall’s “This Big Moroccan Sea” sets to music a note found on the body of a man who died in 2006, along with all the other occupants of a boat filled with 50 migrants. The engine failed, their guide left them, and the boat drifted in the Atlantic Ocean for months before it landed in Barbados with 11 bodies on board. Tenor Cortlandt Matthews sang Marshall’s setting of the note as the chorus created the rise and fall of the sea in the background.

The note reads, “The situation in the boat is so painful. I believe there’s no way out of this. To those who find me, I would like to send my family in Bassada this sum of money. Forgive me and goodbye. This is the end of my life in this big Moroccan sea.”

Peace and prayer

More serene pieces countered the portraits of exile and loss. “Suffer no Grief” by prolific young choral composer Abbie Betinis set to music a Persian poem that ends with the reminder, “every road must have an end.” A chant from an African pygmy culture called the community together as it imitated the sounds of a rainforest.

Ysaye Maria Barnwell’s “We Are” ends with one of the most effective bits of understatement I’ve encountered. The text works through the different things people are, from our “grandmother’s prayers” to grander roles like builders of nations and seekers of truth. A lesser composer might have given us a big thunderclap on the final line: “We are one.” Barnwell presents it without flourishes or repeats and lets it speak for itself.

The concert maintained the musical standards set by the Singers over the last six years. In the Brahms prayer “When we are in deepest need…,” they surmounted all the complex interactions and surprising touches the greatest composers put into everything they do. Eleven members of the chorus sang solos at different points in the concert and they all produced strong performances.

Much like the Mendelssohn Club, Choral Arts, and other choruses that maintain Philadelphia’s long, illustrious choral tradition, the Chestnut Street Singers are a volunteer chorus. They call themselves a “cooperative chorus” because they don’t have a professional conductor. They take turns conducting and develop their programs with discussions that include all the members. They’re a unique organization with a unique style and they’ve added a fascinating voice to the city’s musical life.

Chestnut Street Singers chart new territory
Dave Allen, South Jersey Courier-Post
Originally published on October 29, 2015, at
The Philadelphia area is crawling with choirs of all kinds: large ones that perform masses and requiems, others that specialize in Baroque music or contemporary music, still others with and without church affiliations. One of the larger groups has a name that fits Philadelphia as a whole: Singing City.

In this music-rich environment, a handful of singers in Philadelphia saw an opening and started a new group, the Chestnut Street Singers.

This year, the Center City-based chamber chorus is celebrating its sixth year in operation and will mark its growth and success with its first-ever concert outside of Philadelphia.

The Singers formed in 2010 among congregants and singers at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia.

“We realized we all had musical interests in common,” says Caroline Winschel, one of the Singers’ founders and one of two original members in the current group. “We looked around and thought, ‘We can just make a choir! How hard could it possibly be?’”

What sets the choir apart, in addition to its very fine performances of challenging repertoire, is that, unlike many other choral groups, it has no artistic director. Choir members alternate conducting duties, and the group’s artistic vision fulfilled in a collective manner, with members weighing on selecting music and devising concert programs.

The group’s musical roots are strong, as numerous conductors, composers and music teachers have passed through its rank over the years, in addition to artists, graduate students, non-profit administrators, and other professionals.

Josh Dearing, a member since 2013 and a post-baccalaureate student at the University of Pennsylvania, serves as one of the group’s conductors. “I used to be a high school choir director, so this group scratched two itches for me.”

Each of the choir’s concerts over the past six years has had a theme: Love, travel, nature, foreign cultures.

No program has been quite as ambitious or daunting as the Nov. 7 concert, though. Titled “fray | as shadows fall,” the program is based on visions of death and the afterlife, and themes of personal and social upheaval.

The idea started with Lizzy Schwartz, a former Collingswood resident and an alto in the Singers, who threw out an idea during brainstorming: What about a concert about the apocalypse?

From that starting point, an online spreadsheet was passed around, choir members put forth various pieces of music, and a program gradually coalesced around this weighty theme.

“It explores all the different ways that things can be kind of terrible or unsettled,” Schwartz says.

How does the apocalypse sound? Take, for example, a setting of J.S. Bach’s chorale “Come, Sweet Death” by Edwin London and Rhonda Sandberg that features “choral-ography,” with arm and body movements timed to the sung words. It’s familiar and soothing at first, then a free-form section, where each chorister performs the words and movements at their own pace, leads to a sort of slow-motion chaos.

There’s more unearthly sounds in a motet by Gesualdo, an Italian Renaissance composer known for strange, wrenching harmonies unlike any other music from the 16th century. Elsewhere in the program, there’s a rustic Appalachian hymn arranged by Rick Bjella, creeping, Halloween-esque figures in Orban’s “Daemon irrepit callidus,” and obsessive, insistent grief in Tomkins’ setting of “When David Heard.”

There’s a bit of consolation as well, in form of two spirituals, “I’ve Been in the Storm So Long” and “Hard Times Come Around No More.”

The rest of the concert features more familiar names and repertoire, including Eric Whitacre, a popular composer of contemporary choral music, plus classical greats such as Francis Poulenc, Samuel Barber, Johannes Brahms.

The Haddonfield concert is presented by the Haddonfield Center for the Performing Arts, an outgrowth of the music program at Grace Episcopal Church. Max Esmus, who serves as both artistic director for the Center and as music director at Grace Church, has previously programmed choral music as part of the Center’s season, but he felt that the Chestnut Street Singers had something new to offer.

“If they’re making music like this without an artistic director,” he says, “they must be doing something amazing.”

Esmus sees groups like the Singers as breaking free of classical-music stereotypes. Their music-making, he says, seems more in tune with everyday human experience, full of emotion and expression, than like works in a museum.

“When you listen to them, all of the preconceived notions about classical music drop away, and you understand why these pieces have stood the test of time.”

The Nov. 7 concert is in Grace Church’s 300-seat sanctuary, which Esmus is well-suited to the Singers’ repertoire: spacious pieces with hazy harmonies and a wide range from bass to soprano. In rehearsal and on recordings, it’s remarkable how much sound the Singers’ eighteen members can produce.

Subscribers to the Center’s concert series are familiar with choral repertoire, and Esmus says they’re an open-minded bunch. This apocalyptic concert, though, has him intrigued.

“I can’t wait to hear how they react to this program,” he says.

40 Voices Singing: Singing the names of the stars
Tom Purdom, Broad Street Review
Originally published on March 22, 2015, at
The Chestnut Street Singers are a small group, but they’re accumulating a big history of unusual, unpredictable programs. For their latest happening, they produced one of the most fascinating, offbeat musical events I’ve heard.

The Singers augmented their 16 voices by joining forces with another newcomer to the Philadelphia choral scene, Philharmonia, and a professional early music quartet, the Laughing Bird. For the first half of the concert, they surrounded the audience at First Unitarian with 40 voices and presented works that filled the church with intricate sonic patterns, unexpected solos, and resonating chords.

Take my word for it. Forty unaccompanied human voices can do anything an electronic synthesizer can do. And do it better.

My personal favorite was a piece by a living composer, Jordan Noble, which set the names of the stars to music. But that’s just a reflection of my personal biases and preoccupations. The other items on the first half included an incredibly complicated motet by the Elizabethan composer Thomas Tallis and the death prayer of an Icelandic chieftain.

A mixed mass
The second half presented sections of the mass composed by five different composers, ranging from a 14th-century Gloria by Palestrina, sung by the Laughing Bird, to modern pieces like a Kyrie by Vaughan Williams and a Russian-language Credo by Igor Stravinsky.

The evening ended with one of the grandest grand finales in the repertoire — Samuel Barber’s choral arrangement of his most popular work, his Adagio for Strings. As a string work, the Adagio is beautiful and mysterious. As a choral setting for the Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God have mercy on us”), it rises to an intensely dramatic peak. In the last section, Barber’s music creates a serene foundation for the closing prayer for peace. This is only the second time I’ve heard the choral version of Barber’s signature work. If you’ve never heard it, I recommend that you attend any concert that includes it.

A Sunday with AVA and Chestnut Street Singers: War and peace, music and politics
Tom Purdom, Broad Street Review
Originally published on March 22, 2014, at

In the course of a single Sunday, I heard arias by Bach, Handel, and Mozart, along with two of my favorite songs about the human fondness for organized mayhem. The arias included gems like Handel’s Let the Bright Seraphim and Mozart’s Laudamus Te from his Grand Mass in C Minor. The war songs were the Agincourt Song, which celebrates Henry V’s famous victory, and Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye, which laments the loss of limbs and eyes to the tune most of us know as When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again.

Lofton: From one era to another
The arias were part of an annual program of instantly recognizable sacred music presented by the Academy of Vocal Arts, an 80-year-old school that attracts advanced vocal students from all over the world. The two war songs, by contrast, were sung by the Chestnut Street Singers, a “cooperative chamber chorus” organized just four years ago by 16 part-time singers— experienced choral enthusiasts, many with music education degrees, who last weekend sang works by less familiar composers like Kirke Mechem (he composed the music for Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, I Know What the Caged Bird Feels).

Together, the two programs captured some of the scope and variety of the vocal music pigeonholed under the “classical music” label.

When I told a musical acquaintance that I hoped to attend both events and cover them in a single review, she immediately understood why. “That’s Philadelphia,” she said.

Conflicting attitudes
You can be certain you’ll hear first-rate voices when you attend “Jubiliate!,” and this year’s crop of AVA Resident Artists sounded especially impressive. But I was equally impressed with the way AVA’s conductor David Lofton modified the orchestra’s sound as the program advanced through the musical eras, from the brighter, thinner sound of Baroque music to the fuller, more emotional sound of 19th-century works by Gounod and Rossini.

The Chestnut Street Singers titled their program “To Arms: Songs of Strife and Reconciliation,” and their selections captured all the tension created by humanity’s conflicting attitudes toward war. The program included songs devoted to peace and serenity, interspersed with more martial fare like the Agincourt Song and a Renaissance battle piece that reveled in the clamor and excitement of war, with no indication the composer recognized the realities mourned in Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye.

Pro-Communist, anti-Hitler
In fairness to the AVA concert, I should note that it did end with three works by more contemporary composers. My favorite was a teacher’s prayer that combined a nursery rhyme text with a child-like musical setting by Kristine Nicole Lewis (1920-2006).

The Chestnut Street program, on the other hand, included two works by composers with upper level name recognition: a Da pacem, Domine (“Grant peace, O Lord”) by the Estonian composer Arvo Part, and Benjamin Britten’s unpredictable, strikingly complex setting of a 1939 pro-Communist anti-war poem, Advance Democracy.

The Britten piece evoked the most conflicting emotions in this particular listener. For those of us who grew up in the shadow of the Second World War, the text reflects the attitudes that supported the appeasement of Hitler and led the world into war.

But that raises an interesting question. The AVA concert included an Ave Maria by Gounod with another striking setting. Soprano Marina Costa-Jackson sang it with well-moderated reverence, while Sophie Bruno and concertmaster Igor Szwec accompanied her on harp and violin, with Szwec contributing an especially sweet violin solo. The problem for me is that I’m an areligious urbanite raised in the Protestant tradition; the Ave Maria doesn’t mean any more to me than the text of Advance Democracy. So why, then, should I feel that the call to overthrow the bosses in Advance Democracy is any more troublesome than the Ave Maria’s prayer to the Virgin Mary?

The answer, of course, is that I should listen to Advance Democracy in exactly the same way I listen to an Ave Maria. The exercise might even provide some practical value. When you listen to music based on a religious or political text, you are, to some extent, sharing the feelings of the people who believe in those words. Add enough of those moments to your life and you may— possibly— just possibly— become a little more understanding, and a little less inclined to strike at those who differ with you, physically or verbally.

Chestnut Street Singers
Tom Purdom, Broad Street Review
Originally published on June 4, 2013, at

When I reviewed the Chestnut Street Singers for the first time two years ago, I felt they should appeal to the same kind of audiences that the Lyric Fest art song series has attracted. Their latest concert displayed all the virtues that prompted that conclusion, but it would have benefited from an extra dose of the variety that keeps Lyric Fest programs hopping.

Taken individually, the selections on the Chestnut Street program were all good pieces, guaranteed to please anyone who enjoys hearing first-class voices interacting with precision and artistic understanding as they perform works by composers like Poulenc and Schumann. But taken together, the selections tended to be low-keyed, melancholy and too similar stylistically.

A tendency to emphasize the women’s voices increased the stylistic duplication. Much as I enjoy hearing altos and sopranos, a few pieces that emphasized tenors and basses would have provided a welcome change.

Fit for Obama

The major exceptions to the general uniformity were an arrangement of “Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child” and David Ludwig’s setting of the Emma Lazarus sonnet inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.

“Sometimes” featured a moving solo by Melinda Steffy, whose beautiful, lonely contralto floated over a murmuring chorus. Ludwig gave the Emma Lazarus verse a straightforward musical setting that let her words speak for themselves— an approach that makes it an ideal ceremonial piece for occasions like President Obama’s second inauguration, where it opened the official church service that morning.

The Chestnut Street Singers have now finished their third season and published the schedule for their fourth. Anyone who thinks the Classical music tradition is dying should look at the solid, enthusiastic audiences applauding musical events in Philadelphia venues like the First Unitarian Church. The larger, more visible organizations may need some special help right now, but the unicorn continues to flourish and regenerate in the outlying zones of its habitat.

Chestnut Street Singers and the ‘Midnight Sun’
Tom Purdom, Broad Street Review
Originally published on May 8, 2012, at

Amateurs in the best sense
As we plod through the Western world’s current economic downturn, we can take some comfort from the fact that Philadelphia continues to generate new music organizations. I’ve attended only two concerts by the Chestnut Street Singers during their first two seasons, but they’re clearly a worthy addition to Philadelphia’s great tradition of volunteer choruses.

The Chestnut Street Singers fit into that tradition because they sing without pay but call themselves a “cooperative chorus.” When I questioned their chief spokesperson, Jen Hayman, after the concert, she said they’ve chosen this designation because they operate without a designated conductor or artistic director.

Hayman and another group member, Michael Johnson, fulfill many of the functions of a music director, but all the members participate in program planning and the other high-level tasks normally assigned to a music director.

That type of freewheeling organizational structure probably wouldn’t work with large choruses like the Mendelssohn Club and Choral Arts Philadelphia. But applied to a small, 14-voice chamber chorus, it produces results that should gratify the most fanatic critics of hierarchical organizations.

Who gives the cues?
The Chestnut Street Singers manage to get along without a conductor even though they’re usually coping with complex pieces that require tight coordination. They sing without accompaniment. Good a cappella composers maintain interest by creating complicated interactions among the different sections of the chorus, playing one section against another, much the way orchestra composers exploit the tone colors of the different instrumental sections.

In the absence of a leader, Hayman and Johnson take turns beating time— but that’s all they do. Their colleagues must make their entrances and exits without a conductor to give them cues.

For their season closer, the Chestnut Singers ventured into novel territory. As befitting a concert titled “Songs to the Midnight Sun,” the program featured works inspired by the long days of the Northern European summer and the months of darkness that surround it. Half the composers hailed from Northern Europe, and their scores included odd harmonies, pieces based on unfamiliar folk traditions, and borrowings from other traditions, such as the Tuvan throat-singers of southern Siberia.

Cossacks attack
The Finnish piece that opened the program depicted an exuberant ride into the rising sun, with the lower voices creating a pulsing gallop while the upper voices sang above them like Cossacks on the attack. Other pieces evoked the sound of bells and the feeling of clouds racing across the sky.

All the pieces on the program emphasized ensemble singing, but an occasional outburst from a soloist provided a reminder of the quality of the individual voices creating the ensemble effects.

The two soloists who received credit lines on the program possess notably pure voices. Soprano Ellen Gerdes added a beautiful, sudden solo to a song about summer rain by a contemporary Icelandic composer, Hildigunnur Runarsdottir. Mezzo Rachel Haimovich contributed a similar moment to a touching traditional Finnish song that mingled loneliness with the cries of the wild duck.

Vocalists in volunteer choruses work without pay, but they earn their places through auditions and maintain their positions through the quality of their work after they join the chorus. Most of them have made significant investments in training and practice time. They’re amateurs in the oldest and best sense of the word—people who do something for the love of it.

This Green and Pleasant Land
Sharon Torello, Local Arts Live
Originally published on March 15, 2012, at

The Chestnut Street Singers describe themselves as a “cooperative chamber chorus” and the level of cooperation within the ensemble was immediately evident. Different members took turns leading the group and their scattered lineup with vocal ranges mixed together made for a very harmonious delivery. The cooperation extends behind the scenes with members chipping in to write program notes, select music, and work on programming. Sunday’s concert was entitled “This Green and Pleasant Land”. The title might lead one to think this program would involve the kind of fluff associated with the Lawrence Welk show but nothing could be further from the truth. The theme flew us to foreign lands, both real and utopian, discussed our relationship with those lands, sent us to to the cosmos, and finally brought us home with the final spiritual with an interesting story: Dvořák’s “Going Home”. The interesting program notes, written by Caroline Winschel, tell the details. This “mac and cheese” finish was a comforting end to an intellectual, spiritual, and most of all, musical journey.

This was my first chance to hear the Chestnut Street Singers. Listening to their beautifully blended voices and tight formations in dynamic ebbs and flows in the music was a joy. Based on themes for past and future concerts, it appears that the excellent programming in this concert is not a fluke. Mark your calendars for their next concert.

Here are two excellent examples from the concert. The first is Jordan Nobles’ “Lux Antiqua”. This was the east coast premier of the new work, and this recording cannot really do it justice because it lacks the spatial qualities one can only experience live. The chorus spread out widely in front of the church and the vocal parts proceeded to vary from individual voices to clusters, and finally the unison one might imagine in galaxies; just as the stars appear visually in the evening sky. The effect was moving and dramatic.

This second example is the final selection in the program: Antonín Dvořák, “Going Home”

New Voices in Town
Tom Purdom, Broad Street Review
Originally published on June 20, 2011, at

The Chestnut Street Singers comprise a 12-voice “cooperative chamber chorus” that presented its debut concert at the beginning of this season. I missed the Singers’ first two concerts, but their third event indicated that they’re another example of the creative ferment of Philadelphia’s music scene.

Good a cappella choral music requires strong voices, good harmony, close coordination, and astute selections. The Chestnut Street Singers scored in all four categories. Their voices all sound good together, and the individual voices made an impression every time someone launched into a brief solo.

The program featured music by a roster of American composers that ranged from the 18th-Century father of American choral music, William Billings, to 31-year-old Abbie Betinis. Every entry made heavy use of counterpoint as well as the other musical devices that substitute for the color and variety instruments add to accompanied choral music.

In a good a cappella choral setting, the composer’s musical embellishments and complexities perform two functions simultaneously: They enhance the mood of the text, and they create music that would be interesting and appealing if you didn’t understand a word the singers were singing. Most of the selections on the program met that test.

Clear female voices
The opener, “Long Time Traveler,” provided an effective preview of coming attractions. The arrangement by choir member Jordan Rock was a rearrangement of two versions: the original four-part arrangement published by Edmund Dumas in 1859, and a modern three-part arrangement by a Canadian folk trio, The Wailin’ Jennys.

Rock’s rearrangement included an evocative opening by a trio of exceptionally clear female voices; two complex arrangements of the rest of the text; and a lively interlude in which the whole chorus sang the melody in the four syllables used in the 19th-Century teaching technique called “shape note singing.”

From Copland to Garcia Lorca
The rest of the program included four religious motets by Aaron Copland; Billings’s moving setting of “They that go down to the sea in ships”; British composer Michael Tippet’s powerful, highly embellished 1941 settings of “Steal Away” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”; and a setting of a Garcia Lorca poem by the contemporary American choral master Eric Whitacre.

Abbie Betinis’s “Long Time Traveling” brought the afternoon to a close with a piece that lifted texts and melodies from three 19th Century shape note songs and transformed them into another rousing exercise in relevant complexifying.

The Chestnut Street Singers’ first concert of the 2011-12 season is called “Axis of Medieval,” and it’s scheduled for November 6. If this concert was typical of their work, they should become a favorite with the kind of audiences that Lyric Fest has been attracting to its art song programs.

One thought on “Press

  1. I am unable to find on your website the time for the concert on Nov. 9
    The Elements of Song!
    Please let me know!
    Thank you.

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