Ferris Chorale celebrates Christmas with mystery, mirth and myrrh

Tue Dec 10, 2013 at 11:54 am

By Dennis Polkow

Paul French led the William Ferris Chorale in its annual Christmas program Sunday at St. Clement Church.
Paul French led the William Ferris Chorale in its annual Christmas program Sunday at St. Clement Church.

Starting its 42nd season, the William Ferris Chorale presented its annual Christmas program Sunday afternoon at St. Clement Church in Lincoln Park. A Romanesque building with an ornate Byzantine interior, the church’s swimmy acoustics tended to overwhelm the choral sound at times.

The largest work on the program of seasonal favorites was Gustav Holst’s Christmas Day – a choral fantasy on old carols originally scored for chorus and orchestra but here done with organ accompaniment ably supplied by Kelly Dobbs-Mickus.

Alto Julie DeBoer intoned the opening “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” before the chorus joined in. Bass Jerry Privasky introduced “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and the chorus responded in the same way. The Brittany folktune “Come ye lofty, Come ye lowly” was intoned by the upper voices which the rest of the chorus picks up while the women offer a countermelody of “The First Nowell.”

But the real pleasure of the piece is the way that these melodies interweave and build-up both dynamically and harmonically before arching back around to conclude with the solo section that began the work.

The most moving part of the program was hearing John Tavener’s The Lamb as a memorial to the British composer less than a month after his death. Director Paul French kept the chorale so daringly quiet that you could hear a pin drop and the result was mesmerizing.

Music of Morten Lauridsen was also spotlighted, including his popular traditional Christmas motet O Magnum Mysterium as well as an Ave Maria setting where voices are used primarily as long tones. The Holy Thursday offertory Ubi Caritas decorates the plainchant of that antiphon while O Nata Lux, the center movement of Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna  features long tones used as pedal points with upper voices syllabically moving to contemplative effect.

Three Renaissance works were spotlighted: Orlando de Lassus’ Quem Vidistis Pastores rendered as a model example of High Renaissance polyphony while Peter Phillips’ O Beatum et Sacrosanctum with its antiphon Noel sections was rendered joyfully even if some harshness was exposed in the upper voices. Guillame Costeley’s Allon, Gay Bergères was a tad too heavy.

Gabriel’s Message showed the precision of the sections by starting with lower voices singing the melody with upper voices used as ambience and then skillfully reversing the effect. Thomas Matthews’ I Sing of a Maiden was a clever call and response intoned by soprano Tracie Davis and tenor Frank Villella and answered by the full Chorale.

Among other carols heard were the Wexford Carol in a very busy arrangement where diction was muddled and a spirited syncopated arrangement of Go Tell It on the Mountain which acted as a worthy finale.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Dec. 14 at Loyola University’s Madonna Della Strada Chapel and 3 p.m. Sun. Dec. 15 at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in LaGrange; williamferrischorale.org.   

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