Chicago Master Singers offer a Russian salute of their own

Sat Apr 21, 2012 at 1:18 pm

By Dennis Polkow

Alan Heatherington led the Chicago Master Singers in a concert Friday night at Divine Word Chapel in Techny.

With the Chicago Symphony Orchestra making its second-ever Russian tour, the Chicago Master Singers offered a hometown salute to Russia of its own in preparation for its own tour of the Baltic states and St. Petersburg next summer.

Friday night’s eclectic program was titled “Music of Russia and the Baltics plus American Spirituals.” Under music director Alan Heatherington, the evening spotlighted settings and arrangements by Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian, Russian and American composers at the Chapel of the Holy Spirit of the Divine Word in Techny.

For such a large chorus made up of so many non-professionals, the transparency of Chicago Master Singers is extraordinary, to be sure. Heatherington kept a tight rein on dynamics, balances and diction all evening and, despite the resonance of the space, lines and texts remained clear.

The Russian portion offered the most substantial works on the program, including two exquisite sections from Tchaikovsky’s Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom that featured the basses, the stalwart timbre of Russian Orthodox services. Rachmaninoff was represented with the vespers portion of his own less tangy and more conventional setting of the Divine Liturgy that spotlighted the upper range of the sopranos.

A short tranquil Mass setting by Rimsky-Korsakov and a dreamy Easter motet by Glazunov were among the more tender Russian Orthodox settings. Yuli Engel’s By the Shores of the Jordan offered a Jewish modal approach that spotlighted the extraordinary dynamic range of the chorus.

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt was represented by two recent works: his shimmering 2007 Morning Star where he effectively uses tone painting and dynamic contrast to take us from darkness to light; and a more conventional 2008 setting of the Prayer of St. Patrick called The Deer’s Cry.   

Two premieres were presented on the American portion of the program: group tenor Francis Lynch’s expansive Offertory for divided chorus, and Wayland Roger’s atmospheric Christmas Eve, which seemed oddly appropriate on such a cold April night.

Given the preponderance of spirituals and hymns presented, it was interesting to compare Latvian composer Ēriks Eŝenvalds’ far more daring and imaginative setting of Amazing Grace on the opening section of the program with say, Stephen Paulus’ more predictable setting of We Gather Together on the second half of the program.

Eric Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque made for a nice contrast with an exuberant performance of the Hal Johnson arrangement of Ain’t Got Time to Die. The latter spiritual stopped the show and really should have been the finale, but was followed by a rather anticlimactic Alice Parker arrangement of Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal, which would have been more effectively presented earlier in the program, or perhaps as an encore.

The program will repeat at 7 p.m. Sunday. 877-825-5267.

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