Bella Voce opens 30th season with an encore of Ferko’s “Stabat Mater”

Mon Oct 15, 2012 at 3:05 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

On a frigid February night thirteen years ago, a new work was unveiled at a tiny church in Evanston by His Majestie’s Clerkes under the direction of Anne Heider.

The choir’s name has changed and Andrew Lewis is now at the helm. But it seemed wholly appropriate that Bella Voce should open its 30th anniversary season with an encore of Frank Ferko’s Stabat Mater, a rich and deeply moving work commissioned by Heider that was a highlight of her tenure leading the ensemble.

Sunday afternoon’s concert at Rockefeller Chapel in Hyde Park offered a reunion of sorts with Heider and Ferko on hand to discuss the commissioning of the work and its musical construction.

I covered the world premiere of Ferko’s Stabat Mater in 1999 for the Chicago Tribune and it was a revelation that choral music of such ambition, emotional depth and immediacy was still being written, not least by a composer resident in Chicago, as Ferko was at the time.

The traditional Latin text depicting Mary’s weeping at the cross of Jesus, is here interpolated with five secular settings that expand and magnify on the topic of mothers losing their children. Yet while the 55-minute Stabat Mater is complex in its construction and architecture, it is accessible in style, offering a wide variety of vocal textures and effects and moving from somber E minor into dissonant, atonal regions before returning to a consolatory final section and affirmative D major conclusion.

A soprano soloist is called upon for the interpolated secular settings. While Patrice Michaels sang with clear enunciation and projection, at times one would have liked a gentler style and more radiant and nuanced approach.

This is extraordinarily challenging music for choral singers, yet the Bella Voce members came through in an impressive and communicative performance, under Lewis’s scrupulous direction. The singers tackled the stratospheric soprano writing, the Ligeti-like clusters, and the wide expressive range of Ferko’s vast ambitious work with dedication and emotional resonance. Do try to catch Bella Voce’s final performance of this program in Evanston Oct. 20 if you are not acquainted with this remarkable work.

The afternoon began with William Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices. This concise, beautiful setting was never performed in public during Byrd’s lifetime, and the work served as a worthy prelude to the Ferko, both in its Catholic inspiration and a similar mosaic-like construction, built on short vocal motifs and saving the full choir for dramatic moments. At times one wanted a purer, more ethereal sound from the choir’s sopranos, but this was a polished, flowing performance with quite lovely glowing vocalism in the concluding Agnus Dei.

Note: Frank Ferko’s Stabat Mater was recorded by Anne Heider and His Majestie’s Clerkes shortly after the premiere performances and that recording is still available on the Cedille label.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. October 20 at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston.

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