The Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia Gets Vibrantly Vocal

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The power of the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music aside, it's composers like Jennifer Higdon, Andrea Clearfield and James Primosch that help to make Philadelphia the sixth borough of New York.

Assembling these three composers together is another gem from the City of Brotherly Love, the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia under Alan Harler, on their newest release, Metamorphosis (which also features the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia). Despite the rather antiquated name, the MCP under Harler has expanded the repertoire of new works by American composers over the last 24 years, assembling three new commissions here that rise valiantly just in time for the choral influx of the spring holidays. 

In Jennifer Higdon’s album-opening On the Death of the Righteous, you hear echoes of Verdian splendor with Britten-like modesty, unsurprising on both counts as Higdon wrote the work to accompany the former’s Requiem and set it to the text of John Donne, a favorite source material for the latter. However, Higdon’s own brand of unsettling sonorities, playful percusiveness and indulgently buoyant musical lines dominate the tone here.

On the Death of the Righteous presents an affirmative jumping-off point for Andrea Clearfield’s behemoth The Golem Psalms, a work shrouded in the mysticism of the Czech-Jewish source-legend but with smoky currents of mid-century jazz. The legend of the Golem, a living being created from inanimate clay, was a source material for several operas over the last century, however in a choral setting such as Clearfield’s—featuring the unsinkable Sanford Sylvan in the eponymous solo role—shows the real drama and tragedy of the individual against a crowd and what happens when both factions turn on one another (no small amount of credit is also due to Ellen Frankel, whose text teems with lyrical verse and emphatic empathy).

Wrapping up the package of destruction and deliverance is Primosch’s raging Fire-Memory/River-Memory, an outright indictment of war and its casualties. It bridges together the themes of Clearfield’s Golem and Higdon’s Righteous in an onslaught of vocal bravado tempered with cooler metaphysics that illuminate words by the late Denise Levertov. And in a season that, spiritually speaking, is all about redemption and resurrection, what more do you need.