Ferris Chorale rings in the season in wide-ranging, adventurous style

Sat Dec 05, 2009 at 3:03 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Paul French led the William Ferris Chorale’s Christmas concert Friday night at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church.

The earth’s climate may change, governments be overthrown, and  economies topple, but there will always be the Christmas concert by the William Ferris Chorale.

Marking its 38th season, the Chorale presented a characteristically generous and wide-ranging program Friday night under music director Paul French at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, though the evening was not without a certain bittersweet quality.

With renovations scheduled at the Belmont Avenue church early next year, Friday’s event is the last there for the Chorale this season, as the ensemble will be forced to vacate Mount Carmel—its home for the past 23 years– for two new venues (the Madonna della Strada Chapel at Loyola University and St. Cletus Church in La Grange).

For one who has not heard the William Ferris Chorale in a decade, it was heartening to encounter the same well-honed ensemble, dedicated vocal commitment and venturesome repertoire under Paul French that has made these annual events such a treasured Chicago tradition.

After a somewhat rugged opening with Charpentier’s Cantiques Retentir, the singers quickly found their vocal footing with a Nativity set, vibrantly conveying the rejoicing of Praetorius’s En Natus Est Emmanuel with the sopranos’ pure tone well displayed in Jackson Hill’s Carol of the Manger.

The two principal works on the program were by William Mathias and Bob Chilcott. A longtime member of the King’s Singers, Chilcott turned to composing over a decade ago and was represented by his Advent Antiphons.

Written in 2004, these seven seasonal settings can be performed individually or together as was done Friday night. Chilcott’s Antiphons are strikingly original works, deftly deployed across the four sections of the double chorus and skillfully mixing chant elements with offbeat effects. The women’s voices are called upon to sing in their own chosen rhythms in the third and fifth sections, creating an unusual bird-like fluttering sound. Under French’s alert direction, the Ferris Chorale gave Chilcott’s challenging  Antiphons refined and rich-voiced advocacy.

Music of William Mathias has figured prominently in the Chorale’s history. The English composer wrote an Alleluia for the Chorale’s 20th anniversary in 1992, and the ensemble gave the U.S. premiere of his Ave Rex, a Ferris perennial, presented again Friday night.

Mathias’ pungent astringency makes a timely palate cleanser from the holiday musical sugar, leading off with its virtuosic Hammer horror films organ flourish. With dissonance and edgy harmonics dominant, even the setting of Praetorius’s Er is ein Ros offers little respite, with an atmosphere of restless unease more than spiritual solace. Under French’s direction, the Ferris singers gave vehement and strongly projected expression to this thorny music, with Paul Nicholson’s full-metal organ playing on the same high level.

In addition to providing expert accompaniment, Nicholson showed his choral arranging chops with a skillful retooling of the Basque carol, Gabriel’s Message, the vocal pedal points clearly displaying an organist’s touch. Nicholson also offered up a nimble In dulci jubilo solo, a fine tribute to its arranger, organist and composer Paul Manz, who passed away in October, age 90.

Other highlights included expressive renderings of Praetorius’s Es is ein Ros entsprungen and Max Reger’s lovely lullaby carol, Maria Wiegenlied. A lively performance of the Wassail Song was set off by Peter Warlock’s meltingly beautiful Come to Bethlehem.

Rev. Edward McKenna was on hand to take a bow for his artful arrangement of the Irish melody, Stars of Glory. Also notable were a deeply felt rendering of Bonaventura Somma’s gorgeous Neni Pastorale and an expansive, beautifully sung and directed account of John Rutter’s What Sweeter Music?

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment