Salon quartet offers a genial Christmas program in the South Loop

Sun Dec 09, 2012 at 1:39 pm

By Gerald Fisher

The Salon quartet performed a holiday program Saturday night at Second Presbyterian Church.

In their third annual holiday concert Saturday evening the classical vocal quartet Salon delivered a polished and energetic performance, nicely thought out and vocally ingratiating.  The members of Salon, a fairly new ensemble formed in 2010, are Anne Marie Lewis, soprano; Martha Kasten, mezzo-soprano; Henry Pleas, tenor and Timothy Christopoulos, bass-baritone.

Their holiday outing this year was at the historic Second Presbyterian Church at 1936 S. Michigan, and the genial group occupied the variety of spaces available to them in this Gilded Age masterpiece. The program had a few technical rough spots but was varied and differed from the standard holiday fare while preserving enough chestnuts to satisfy the taste of most purists.

The ensemble opened their program, titled “Carols, Lessons and Songs,” with a striking solo introit sequence to the hymn O come, o come Emmanuel in which, after a long dramatic organ pedal tone, each of the four vocalists made their entry with an atmospheric solo, culminating in a harmonic whole which showed them at their best individually and as a group.

This fairly traditional opening was followed by an off-standard repertoire item, a short choral song How Can I Keep from Singing? by contemporary composer Gwyneth Walker, which made some real demands on the vocalists as well as the pianist, Jennifer McCabe (who was apparently a last-minute substitution and proved more than up to the task).

The Walker work was followed by Faure’s brief early Cantique de Jean Racine, and it was useful to have the Racine poem read in front of the performance. The result was not as refined and hushed as might have been wished, and may have been slightly rushed to keep up the momentum, but it stood out in in its austerity and contrasting tone.

Vaughan Williams’ brief but mellifluous The Blessed Son of God was followed by one of the best readings of the evening—a dramatic and gestural rendering of an excerpt from Genesis 22 by the Rev Sylvia Pleas.

The ever-mobile ensemble changed places in the sanctuary in turning to Pietro Yon’s lovely rendering of traditional tunes in Gesu Bambino followed by John Jacob Niles’ folkish I Wonder as I Wander as a mezzo solo and another highlight in a dynamic if fitfully rough-edged version of the Spanish Renaissance classic, Riu, riu, chio, complete with authentic-sounding percussion effects.

The balanced acoustics of the cavernous space were softened by the ample use of wood in the church’s construction which dampened the reverberation nicely in this piece and in the following rendering of Holst’s potpourri Christmas Day, which concluded the first half and showed off the pure tones of the organ.

The artists managed not to belabor the humor of P.D.Q. Bach’s droll Good King Kong Looked Out and Throw the Yule Log On, Uncle John, while a section of comedic pieces was followed by another highlight: a performance by tenor Henry Pleas and the talented organist and musical director Michael Shawgo of The Lost Chord by Sir Arthur Sullivan, a High Victorian vocal piece which felt right at home in the interior of the church with its opulent turn-of-the century decor.

A gospel-tinged rendering of Rise up Shepherd was followed by an invigorating all-together version of Angels We Have Heard on High featuring rousing organ accompaniment. The last piece was an anticlimax of sorts: John Rutter’s quietly simple What Sweeter Music Can We Bring ended a fairly short yet satisfying concert, which had it been longer would not have worn out its welcome.

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