Tuesday, June 22, 2010

'The English Mozart'

Stanley M. Baker, maestro of the summer festivals of early music at Richmond’s Centenary United Methodist Church, has resurrected many works by under-performed or nearly forgotten composers of the 17th and 18th centuries, leading several U.S. premieres over the festival’s three decades.

Several more first performances on this side of Atlantic are in store on June 27, as Baker and his Centenary Festival Choir and Orchestra celebrate the 200th anniversary of the organization of the downtown church’s congregation with music by Methodism’s most resonant name: Wesley.

Not John, founder of the denomination, or Charles, the great Methodist hymnodist; but Charles’ son and John’s nephew, Samuel Wesley (1766-1837), the organist and composer sometimes known as "the English Mozart."

Family ties notwithstanding, Samuel Wesley was not a model Methodist. He may have converted to Catholicism; he certainly was attracted to Catholic liturgical music. "If the Roman Doctrines were like the Roman Music we should have Heaven upon Earth," he told a friend. He sampled other non-conformist faiths. He was married, to Charlotte Louisa Martin, in an Anglican ceremony. Their brief marriage produced three children; he fathered nine more out of wedlock – among them, Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-76), who became a prominent composer of Anglican church music.

Samuel Wesley was best-known in his lifetime as an organist (especially noted for his improvisational playing) and music teacher; he also played the violin. He was one of the leading English promoters of the Bach revival in the early 19th century, publishing several arrangements of Bach's works, and was unusually well-versed in other baroque and Renaissance music.

He was prolific, credited with composing some 600 works, ranging from Latin and English church music to chamber and orchestral music, two oratorios and dozens of hymn tunes.

Wesley’s music resembles that of Haydn, Mozart and other classical-period composers; but "[h]is style at its best is marked by counterpoint of real vitality, by strong diatonic dissonance, bold word-setting and a tendency to work out an entire piece or movement without frequent contrasts of mood – all characteristics that set it apart from the ordinary church style of the Classical period," Nicholas Temperley writes in The New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians.

Baker and his Centenary Festival ensembles will sample both instrumental and choral works of Samuel Wesley: his Concerto in D major, with organist Grant Hellmers and violinist Risa Browder; the "Funeral Anthem on the Death of the late Charles Wesley," featuring sopranos Brittany Brooks and Lynn LaBarre, alto Emily Martin, tenor Todd Minnich and baritone Dustin Faltz; "Exultate Deo" in its rarely heard choral-orchestral version; and the "Ode to Saint Cecilia," with soprano Anne O’Byrne, alto Lynn Kotrady and bass John C. Ford Jr.

The Centenary Festival Choir and Orchestra, Stanley M. Baker conducting, will present "A Walk with Wesley" at 5 p.m. June 27 at Centenary United Methodist Church, 411 E. Grace St., in Richmond. A $15 donation is suggested. Details: (804) 648-8319; http://www.centumc.org/