IN: Reviews

Alexander’s Feast at Emmanuel, an Impressive Introduction for Ryan Turner


After the shock of losing visionary founder Craig Smith in 2007, Emmanuel Music eyed its future with commendable restraint and, after a good think, placed the shaping of its course in the hands of another thinking man’s choral conductor, Ryan Turner. Emmanuel’s and Turner’s proclamation of the era to come (this is not an inflated expression of their seriousness of intent) began this past Friday evening, September 24th, with a simply lovely performance of George Friedrich Handel’s ode of early 1736, Alexander’s Feast. Familiar figures from earlier Bach, Schubert, and other cycles sang and played unstintingly, basing their tonal language on the customary Emmanuel fabric of modern instruments cum harpsichord, approached with proven, informed style.

The program got under way with Stravinsky’s caustic, feisty, and quite brief Fanfare for a New Theatre (1964) for two unaccompanied trumpets. Veteran trumpeters Paul Perfetti and Bruce Hall, who would not be heard from again for over an hour, shattered the humming quiet of the full church with spare cascades of seconds and sevenths, and then yielded the spotlight to Emmanuel Music’s new president, Kate Kush. She welcomed all and introduced the organization’s new music director in a very few words — long-of-wind board speechmakers, kindly take note!

Sizable Handel choral pieces begin with overtures, the one for Alexander’s Feast being both typical and charming. We immediately had a good idea of Ryan Turner’s sure, communicative style at the helm, which made use of finely chosen tempi, sensible bowings, deft relative weighting of orchestral sections, and thoroughly enjoyable attacca bridges to project a clear sense of pace and a greater architecture. The central event, though more alluded to than specifically sketched, is conquering Alexander’s torching of “the most beautiful city in the world”, defeated Darius’s Persepolis, at the mad urging of his daughter, Thais. Vocal soli — accompagnati, in recitativo, and in arias or duos — succeeded one another, telling the classic tale of Alexander’s succumbing first to the temptress, then to her disturbed and destructive whim, and finally (this being a literary era detached from inconvenient realities) to the sweet, all-conqu’ring essence of the blessed muse, St. Cecilia. At signal thresholds, as in all such Handel works, the choir bursts forth in proclamation. What better formula could there be for enjoyment, success, and service of the original than John Dryden’s text of 1697? On his decades-long, businesslike way from Italian opera endeavors to the full-blown English oratorio, adoptive Londoner Handel suffused a breathtaking number of musical forms with his living breath of brilliant melody and deeply touching writing for strings and obligati. No finer example of the composer’s fascinating musical peregrination has persisted in concert than Alexander’s Feast. Called an ode, it is essentially an oratorio with a trim anatomy.

Ryan Turner’s supple, even liquid shaping of phrase was the most remarkable part of the evening. Superb singing by bass Dana Whiteside, soprano Kendra Colton, peripatetically busy tenor Jason McStoots, and bass Donald Wilkinson stood out as much through Mr. Turner’s molding as through these singers’ always delightful talents. Cellist Rafael Popper-Keiser is incapable of playing without fervor, spot-on intonation, and a heavenly projection of the affect his solos and occasional continuo highlights bring to the fore. He is among Boston’s distinguished instrumentalists, and for good reason. Vividly rhetorical harpsichordist Michael Beattie, sometimes audible through the familiarly muzzy Emmanuel acoustic, always brought off his continuo and obligato statements with panache and sparkle. As Donald Teeters quipped in his entertaining pre-concert lecture, Handel is prone to dotting beautiful obligato writing among his scores, requiring pairs of winds to sit for eons through the production, deliver their exquisite sunbursts in a single movement, and resubmerge. The rich horn parts and the paired trumpet writing were marvelous — and so was the playing.

Donald Teeters declared that “authentic” is a terrible word in music. He cited the almost unguided ease with which the instruments of Handel’s day balance within an ensemble, with and without voices, but he cannily dodged the small matter of Emmanuel’s four decades of success with modern instrumentation. A thrust of his illuminating, entertaining comments was that Handel’s intrinsic mastery of the score assures that the minor figurations and structures of each movement add up to a terrific vehicle for the all-important text, and that this particular ode, graciously included by most Handelians under the broader wings of the big oratorios that preceded and followed it, is a stellar example of the format.

In Ryan Turner’s debut performance for Emanuel Music, we were never left in doubt of the overarching shape and great beauty of Alexander’s Feast. His impeccable technique in leading the band and singers, and in communicating clearly with soli, came in part out of unequivocal starts for all, with brief, clear advance telegraphing of the pace and a truly refreshing communication of the intimacy of his concept of ensemble playing. Mr. Turner moves vigorously and tosses out straightforward emotional cues when the affect requires these, but the comfort of singers and players, at least in this performance, obviously came from detailed and ample rehearsal among musicians sharing a common musical language. As I mentioned earlier, Mr. Turner’s preferred attacca transitions, never edging toward the abrupt, maintain energy and focus well. This deeply enjoyable Alexander’s Feast augurs well for Boston, as it does for Emmanuel Music.

Alas, I must close in saying that Emmanuel Church’s stuffy, tired air must be original to the building, or perhaps to the time of the post-fire renovations. This historic Anglican congregation and its ecumenical colleague groups are no doubt accustomed to the unchanging fug in the sanctuary. But over the many years of Emmanuel, the Boston Early Music Festival, and other major city music events, audiences have sweltered and perspiringly endured. This is not a call for noisy, costly air conditioning, please note, but for regular, no-cost ventilation to take daily advantage of the cooler night air. It’s just outside, sealed out.

Veteran recording engineer Christopher Greenleaf collaborates with chamber, early, and keyboard musicians in natural acoustic venues on both sides of the Atlantic. He is active as a writer, translator, photographer, and acoustic consultant.


11 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Could the stuffiness be incense residue?

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — September 28, 2010 at 10:12 am

  2. No.

    Comment by Michael Beattie — September 28, 2010 at 7:33 pm

  3. Unless it’s pre-1988!

    Comment by Michael Beattie — September 28, 2010 at 7:34 pm

  4. Clarification of a few points: Thais is not the daughter of either Alexander or of Darius. In the ode, it is clearly the musician Timotheus who incites Alexander to burn down Persepolis, although Thais is very happy to lead the way. The link between Alexander and the power of music is through Timotheus, who manipulates Alexander’s emotions throughout the night until he wreaks his own vengeance on the Persians through Alexander.

    Hmm…music as an amoral art form?

    Comment by Pamela Dellal — September 29, 2010 at 7:23 pm

  5. As the chair of the Emmanuel Building commission allow me to comment that we have the building and the location we have been given. Beautiful, and convenient they are too. We are not air conditioned, and that is not good for the organ or the instruments or our own comfort. In fact we do run a ventilation system in the attic, but yes, the sanctuary does get stuffy when it is full, which it was on friday, we rejoice for that. Outside, the cool night air is accompanied by the noise of downtown Boston, so a balance must be made- opening the church to Newbury Street during a concert would bring it’s own problems and a great deal of noise. We do the best the can we the resources we have, and have plans and hopes for improvement. I look forward to the community’s support in our endeavors to protect and add comfort to our building.


    Comment by Mike Scanlon — September 29, 2010 at 9:10 pm

  6. My comment at the end of the Alexander’s Feast write-up proposed the practical, proven overnight ventilation approach that has worked in southern North America for close to four hundred years and in southern Europe since pre-classical times. This is to ventilate overnight, using substanbtial openings at the bottom of an enclosed space and at its top. 19th-c. American churches were constructed with large ceiling and roof or sheltered steeple openings for exactly this purpose. Many of these have since been blocked up (so that the same stale air can be cooled/heated and recycled endlessly). Basement and sanctuary level windows – suitably screened and barred, in our urban environment – can be opened wide either a couple of hours after dark (when the space is not being used) or following a performance or service. The tremendous thermal rise of 20 meters or so, from floor to roof, engenders a silent and powerful upward draft. When the building is re-opened in the morning, as outside temperatures once more edge upward, the lower openings are closed. This exceptionally effective technique has long kept the stone, wood, and plaster interiors of public and private Roman, southern French, Iberian, Arabic, New Orleans, Charleston, and Atlanta structures surprisingly cool. That is, unless the original openings have, as so often in our AC-dependant land, been sealed tight.

    I am not at all suggesting “live” ventilation during concerts and services, given the astonishing racket from Newbury Street and Emmanuel’s back alley. Instead, I am proposing that daily overnight cooling , which is sadly no longer part of our new England climatic vocabulary, is free of energy cost, remarkably dust-free, and extremely effective. It reduces the temperature of the inner mass of a building, and therefore, through thermal transfer, of its stable mass of inside air, to a level that is only slightly warmer than that of the coolest exterior nighttime air. For Emmanuel, this would by the low 60s, rather than the high 70s. And the inside air would become and stay FRESH. A novel possibility.

    I admit that this non-technical and old-fashion solution to hot, stale building air is now entirely unfamiliar, which tends to doom its (re)implementation from the get go. Warm weather visitors to my home, anno 1710, invariably wonder at the completely inaudible source of cool air they encounter within. A majority of them reject my explanation – overnight ventilation, daytime window closure – out of hand. Only expensive, constant AC can do this — right?

    An end to the stale, warm, fusty fug in blessed, much-treasured Emmanuel Church is indeed possible. But only if this venerable institution can summon the courage to return to its original, and presumably once quite effective, natural means of ventilation…. God’s own night air.

    Comment by Christopher Greenleaf — September 30, 2010 at 1:03 pm

  7. More succinctly put, I simply cannot accept Mike Scanlon’s lame assessment that nothing at all can be done about what many feel is the most uncomfortable state of non-ventilation to be found in an historic Boston concert venue.

    Comment by Christopher Greenleaf — September 30, 2010 at 1:10 pm

  8. As a Boston Freelance cellist who has worked with many of the musicians in the Emmanuel Orchestra, I will say Christopher Greenleaf’s review was spot on. The communication between the musicians was seemless and intuitive and the conducing superb. Ryan Turner was clear and his gestures had a wonderful breathing quality to them, inviting the players to entrances and creating phrases with great precision and musicality. Every player and every solo was a pleasure to hear.

    The idea of opening windows at night the day before a concert is worth trying though!

    Comment by Cam Sawzin — September 30, 2010 at 2:28 pm

  9. There are actually occupancy standards for how much fresh air is circulated in a place of assembly- 3.3 complete changes of air per hour are required by most states. Methinks many older institutions are out of compliance. It’s hard to stay awake when one is hot and suffering from anoxia. That said, one should be very wary of changes in historic buildings. Ducts need to be huge so that air movement is silent and are therefor very hard to conceal. This is not a trivial undertaking, yet it is not a new concern either. In 1860-something the US House of Representatives had an enormous steam driven centrifugal fan installed in the under-croft for the comfort of the reps

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — September 30, 2010 at 4:07 pm

  10. Unfortunately, most of the windows in the sanctuary do not open, and none of the windows in Lindsey Chapel do. None the less, the ventilation system at Emmanuel is quite interesting. Just as Mr. Greenleaf describes,there are large exhaust openings in the sanctuary roof and a large fan up the that runs all summer, as well as very large ducts in the basement that are used as intake in summer mode, and closed for recirculation in the winter. I am happy to give tours. The church’s architects were quite forward looking engineers and it really is very interesting to see all this- of course the attic requires mountaineering equipment- have you ever noticed the ladder at the back of the sanctuary? That’s the only access, but the fans and ducts in the basement are quite impressive. I’m not sure this is the correct forum for discussions of late 19th century engineering, but we are happy work with all interested parties. Perhaps we can meet at the next concert.

    Comment by Mike Scanlon — September 30, 2010 at 6:01 pm

  11. I’ll sign up for a daytime tour. I’m very interested in 19th century engineering.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — September 30, 2010 at 7:20 pm

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