Chicago Chamber Choir’s salsa-laden Spanish Christmas a sure cure for holiday blues

Wed Dec 15, 2010 at 12:29 pm

By Dennis Polkow

The Chicago Chamber Choir performed a Spanish Christmas program.

Choral music aficionados looking for spicy, alternative yet high-quality holiday fare performed with tender loving care need look no further than the Chicago Chamber Choir’s Canciones de Navidad: A Spanish Christmas. This is the second in the group’s innovative, multi-year traversal of Christmas music from around the world.

Unlike last year’s more compact destination of France, a Spanish Christmas goes beyond Spain itself to North and South America, with repertoire spanning from the Renaissance to the current day.

Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) was born in Spain but spent most of his professional life in Rome, where he succeeded Palestrina, the unparalleled master of Renaissance counterpoint, as the music director of the Collegium Romanum.

Victoria’s 1572 Latin motet O Magnum Mysterium is one of the most glorious and recognizable Christmas pieces of the High Renaissance and was exquisitely performed by the choir actually surrounding the audience of the Music Institute of Chicago’s Nichols’ Hall from three sides to considerable effect. This was followed by two lively and rhythmic Renaissance Spanish carols, the lively and rhythmical Riu, riu, chiu and Alta Reyna soberana.

Navidad Nuestra by Argentine composer Ariel Ramirez (1921-2010) is a six-movement suite that tells the Christmas story via Argentine folk traditions.  It is often performed  as a costumed folk drama at Christmastime in Hispanic communities with a folk vocal soloist, but opera tenor Jose Carreras, among others, have brought this music to a wider audience.

It is equally effective as a choral piece which in this case was performed with guitar, harp, piano and percussion.  Only three of the six movements were presented, but Los eyes magios, which tells the story of the magi, was the most effective in this format.

The highlight of the evening was Carols and Lullabies in the Southwest by American composer Conrad Susa (b. 1935), which makes wholesale use of nearly a dozen Biscayan, Catalonian, Puerto Rican, Spanish, Andalucian, Castilian and Mexican Christmas carols. The suite, presented complete, was arranged for chorus and here accompanied by guitar, harp, marimba and vibes.

It was a bit disconcerting when the chorus would switch to English rather than sing some material in rarely-used dialects. Also clarity was not helped by the fact that original texts were rarely provided in the program, only English translations.

Among other evening highlights was Noche de paz, a salsa-laden arrangement of Silent Night, by Venezuelan composer Cesar Carrillo (b. 1957).

That the makeup of Chicago Chamber Choir is by and large working professionals who have an entire life outside of CCC is nothing short of astounding given the nuance and care that they brought to their performances.  Artistic director Timm Adams carefully sculpts and shapes every phrase and the group is remarkably responsive as a focused and balanced unit.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Thursday, December 16 at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, 2335 N. Orchard, Chicago; $15-$20;; 312-409-6890.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment