Chicago Chorale delivers a glowing performance of Martin “Mass”

Sat Nov 23, 2013 at 3:01 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The Chicago Chorale performed Frank Martin's "Mass for Unaccompanied Double Chorus" Friday night at Hyde Park Union Church.

The Chicago Chorale performed Frank Martin’s “Mass for Unaccompanied Double Chorus” Friday night at Hyde Park Union Church.

Imagine a composer who after writing his masterpiece, puts it in a drawer for four decades and makes it public only reluctantly due to the vigorous urging of friends.

Such is the case with Frank Martin and his Mass for Unaccompanied Double Chorus, one of the finest of 20th-century choral works, which was performed by the Chicago Chorale led by Bruce Tammen Friday night at Hyde Park Union Church. The program will be repeated tonight at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Lincoln Park.

Martin completed his Mass in 1922, later adding a concluding “Agnus Dei” four years later. Why the refusal to have the work published or performed? Partly it was due to Martin’s veneration of Bach but largely because of the Swiss composer’s personal humility and Calvinist faith. Martin wrote on the occasion of the Mass’s belated premiere in 1963 that he did not intend for it to ever be performed. “I considered it as being a matter between God and myself. I felt then that an expression of religious feeling should remain secret and removed from public opinion.”

Fortunately for all of us, Martin relented and we have his glorious Mass to hear and appreciate today. As with all of Martin’s relatively small oeuvre, the craft is remarkable and airtight with nary a wasted note. Yet it is the luminous beauty of the music and the ingenuity of the writing that continues to impress, even more so considering the Mass was Martin’s sole composition for a cappella chorus.

The Chicago Chorale is one of the gems of the city’s smaller ensembles. The group, led by artistic director Tammen, only performs a few concerts each year, but each is intelligently programmed and scrupulously prepared.

The Chorale is an “amateur” ensemble of part-time singers, but there is nothing that would indicate that status in their vocalism. Indeed, Friday’s polished performance offered ensemble singing on a very high level, even in a city with several top-flight choruses.

Tammen directed his singers with great skill and understanding, clarifying textures in the overlapping entrances of the opening “Kyrie” and planting the low-voiced pedal-points for the soaring sopranos in the “Gloria.”

The “Credo” was vividly characterized with emphatic attacks on “Crucifixus” and the lilt and rejoicing in the ensuing stanzas surely conveyed. The “Sanctus” was especially glowing and beautifully rendered, and the contrapuntal complexity of the “Benedictus” handled with wonderful finesse by Tammen and his singers.

The first half of the program offered two shorter works.

Jesu, meine Freude, the longest and most complex of J.S. Bach’s six motets, received a rich-toned, flowing performance with Tammen skillfully balancing the contrapuntal divided parts in a well-paced rendering.

In his spoken remarks, Tammen noted that it was fifty years ago to the day when most Americans, himself included, became acquainted with Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, when the elegiac work was played continuously on television in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination.

Barber arranged the Adagio in several versions including a setting for chorus to the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) text. As Tammen noted, it is the least often performed arrangement of the Adagio, due to its difficulty, with the long lines and high tessitura taxing even for professional choirs.

Apart from a jarringly overloud soprano solo, Tammen led the Chorale in a flowing, lovely performance, the singers acquitting themselves quite well in this difficult music.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at St. Vincent de Paul Parish, 1010 W. Webster Avenue in Lincoln Park. chicagochorale.org; 773-306-6195.

Posted in Performances


2 Responses to “Chicago Chorale delivers a glowing performance of Martin “Mass””

  1. Posted Nov 23, 2013 at 10:04 pm by CL

    Just saw the Saturday night performance–the first half of it, anyway. Beautifully done, and I particularly enjoyed the Agnus Dei. The performance for everyone in my section was marred, however, by a loud, thoughtless couple. The woman coughed incessantly; she sounded sick enough that she should have been at home draped over a humidifier. The man had his camera out the entire time taking flash pictures. He took well over 100 through the first two numbers. These people were at least in their 40s and should have known better. Quite a few people from that section either moved or left altogether at intermission.

  2. Posted Dec 03, 2013 at 1:17 pm by Mrs. Marilyn Oaks

    I thoroughly enjoyed t he entiare performance, which had amazing finesse, and rich, blended tones in the difficult content of the conceet. Bravo to the singers, and Kudos to Mr. Tammen!!

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