Chicago Chorale delivers transcendent performance of Russian rarity

Sat Nov 17, 2012 at 2:17 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The Chicago Chorale performed Rodion Shchedrin’s “The Sealed Angel” Friday night at Hyde Park Union Church.

Rodion Shchedrin is known, if at all these days, for antic orchestral works like Naughty Limericks and the Carmen Suite, his free-wheeling one-act ballet that both celebrates and satirically deconstructs music from Bizet’s opera.

Yet the Russian composer—who turns 80 next month—is also clearly capable of writing music that is serious, profound and deeply expressive. Indeed, Shchedrin’s The Sealed Angel, performed in a glowing and revelatory performance by the Chicago Chorale led by Bruce Tammen Friday night in Hyde Park, may well be Shchedrin’s masterwork.

Shchedrin wrote his nine-movement cantata in 1988 to mark the millennium of Russia’s conversion to Christianity. The work was inspired by a Nicolai Leskov story that concerns the Old Believers. The sect’s healing icon of an angel is confiscated by state authorities who cover the angel’s face in wax. Ultimately, the Believers prevail and the icon is restored by a master painter to its former glory.

Even in the Yeltsin-era of perestroika, writing such an openly religious work was still a dicey proposition, and Shchedrin judiciously renamed the cantata, which was originally titled “Russian Liturgy.”

Reflecting the tale, Shchedrin mines an array of Russian musical styles of the past from ancient Orthodox chant to polyphony, and the late 19th- and early 20th-century liturgical music of composers such as Grechaninov and Bortniansky.

Yet Shchedrin also brings elements of his own modern style and biting asperity to the score. The late 20th century is manifest in the tart, folk-like angularity of the oboe solos, which bridge sections of the work, as well as several striking choral effects, which include the singers stamping their feet rhythmically and some impossibly steep crescendoes.

Bruce Tammen Photo: Jasmine Kwong

Artistic director Bruce Tammen has offered some stellar performances with his 57-member chorus, but Friday night’s performance of The Sealed Angel at Hyde Park Union Church offered one of the most transcendent, beautifully sung and immaculately directed choral performances of this or any other year.

From the hushed bars of the opening prayer, “Angel of the Lord,” the otherworldly radiance and seamless purity of ensemble tone were remarkable. Scrupulously prepared by Tammen, the singers sang with what sounded like idiomatic Russian (to my untrained ears) and handled the myriad challenges of the score with technical assurance and radiant expression. The sudden crescendo in Part III was put across with startling impact and the ensuing denunciation of Judas’s betrayal, delivered with surprising power and imposing sonority.

So skillfully moulded and inevitable was the flow of the performance that when one of the sopranos fainted halfway through, she was quietly and quickly helped offstage without Tammen and the singers missing a beat.

Adele-Marie Buis performed the obbligato oboe passages with polish and clarity though one wanted more dynamic shading and expressive nuance in her playing, which felt rather tight and literal Friday.

Members of the Chorale acquitted themselves in fine fashion in their solo moments, particularly Sammi Block, Jessica Melger, and Elizabeth Tuazon, who brought a plaintive vulnerable expression to the seventh movement (“Let my prayer be set forth”).

All credit to Tammen, one of our finest choral hands, who has clearly worked tirelessly on this difficult work with his gifted singers, resulting in a moving, incandescent performance, which unfolded in a single hour-long arc. There is one more performance tonight in Lincoln Park, and this is not an event to miss.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at St Vincent de Paul Parish, 1010 W. Webster Ave. in Lincoln Park.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Chicago Chorale delivers transcendent performance of Russian rarity”

  1. Posted Nov 17, 2012 at 4:32 pm by Marlin Hoover

    I appreciate your review, and agree for the most part. However, I think the stark angularity of the oboe contributed as a contrast to the very lyrical choral expressiveness.

  2. Posted Nov 17, 2012 at 8:09 pm by Mark Kinne

    I agree, the oboe complemented the chorale beautifully in a flawless performance. This was our first exposure to the Chicago Chorale but not the last.

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