Arvo Pärt mass receives solid performance from Chicago Arts Orchestra

Tue Nov 22, 2011 at 4:12 am

By Gerald Fisher

One of Chicago’s lesser-known small musical organizations, the Chicago Arts Orchestra has been performing since 2005 under musical director and conductor Javier Jose Mendoza. The ensemble has been especially active in unearthing and premiering sacred and secular 18th-Century musical gems from Latin America and Spain.

Chicago Arts Orchestra also performs standard classical repertoire during their brief season, and Saturday evening’s concert at the Athenaeum Theatre contained mostly well-known works of fairly recent vintage. For the major piece on the program, Arvo Pärt’s Berliner Messe, they were joined by William Chin’s choral group, City Voices.

Mendoza opened their program with the Barber Adagio for Strings and comparisons were inevitable. With persistent intonation issues in the upper strings, the performance emerged as static.  The long lines of the piece as well as the theater’s dry sonics exposed the string orchestra unkindly.  One mitigation here as throughout the evening was the solid contribution of the two cellists, Rebecca Zimmerman and Thomas Ems.

Eric Ewazen is a contemporary American composer noted for his brass music especially, but for this concert the Chicago Arts Orchestra took on his three-movement Sinfonia for String Orchestra (2001). The music was by turns ebullient, lyrical and fairly complex, but uneventful and conventional.

The orchestra had warmed up enough for a performance of the youthful yet more interesting Simple Symphony of Britten. This always fresh-sounding (1934) work poses challenges, especially in the “Playful Pizzicato” second movement and in the dynamic “Frolicsome Finale.” Mendoza and his instrumentalists brought some humor and swagger to these parts and the third movement “Sentimental Sarabande” showed off the lower strings nicely.

The music of Arvo Pärt formed the second half of the program with his Berliner Messe the highlight of the evening.

The bell-haunted Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten (1977) received a performance that could have used more atmosphere but in the context of the program was thoughtfully chosen. At the beginning of this piece Mendoza gave the second of only two brief comments from the stage, a refreshing departure from performance conventions lately, allowing the music speak for itself.

The Cantus was an excellent lead-in to Pärt’s Berliner Messe, a masterpiece of the composer’s tintinnabulation technique. Written originally for organ and chorus for the 1990 “German Catholic Day,” this version pits the small chorus against a string ensemble. The piece is short but liturgically complete and is particularly rich in Medieval and early Renaissance vocal textures which abound throughout but especially in the fourth movement  Veni Sancte Spiritus is the heart of the piece where the vocal lines dip, rise and hover around a simpler chordal, almost foreboding  string drone.  A more dynamic Credo precedes a long stretched-out Sanctus followed by an unearthly but brief Agnus Dei, which concludes the Mass on a note of expectancy.

The City Voices attacked the music with energy, but seemed hampered by the unreverberant space. The ensemble was still  able to deliver a solid performance of a major 20th-century choral work that merits repeated hearings.

The Chicago Arts Orchestra returns to their specialty, 18th Century Latin American and Spanish music, for their next concert on February 25th at a venue to be announced.

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