Chicago Chorale performs love songs, from Brahms to Kern, delightfully

Mon May 19, 2014 at 12:07 pm

By John Y. Lawrence

The Chicago Chorale performed Brahms' "Liebeslieder Waltzes" Sunday afternoon at the Logan Center in Hyde Park.
The Chicago Chorale performed Brahms’ “Liebeslieder Waltzes” Sunday afternoon at the Logan Center in Hyde Park.

The Chicago Chorale concluded their season with a concert Sunday afternoon at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, on the campus of the University of Chicago.

The centerpieces of the highly varied program were Johannes Brahms’s Liebeslieder Walzer and Neue Liebeslieder Walzer, two collections of assorted waltz-time settings of love poems from Georg Friedrich Daumer’s Polydora. The songs are originally for vocal quartet accompanied by piano duet. However, at this concert, the whole choir performed the ensemble songs, with the solo songs given to individual members of the group.

In a brief introduction, the Chorale’s artistic director and conductor, Bruce Tammen, propounded his theory that there are really two Johannes Brahms: the Bach-loving contrapuntalist with the sober Protestant work ethic and the decadent denizen of Vienna who hobnobbed with Johann Strauss Jr. and enjoyed a nice brandy. The key to performing these pieces, Tammen said, is to consider them as representing both sides of Brahms, and to pay due to the rhythmic intricacies as much as the Viennese charm.

In their performance of the first set, Tammen and the Chorale very much lived up to his words. Their rhythms had all the verve of a Strauss waltz, their syncopations bounced energetically, and they seized upon each opportunity to characterfully shape a line with dynamic inflection. Especially fine were their performances of the longer songs, “Ein kleiner, hübscher Vogel” and “Am Donaustrande”, in which the contrasts between the many different moods were rendered effectively. Kit Bridges and Donald Seitz provided mellifluous accompaniment throughout, cutting through Brahms’ thick textures with supple buoyancy.

The second set, the Neue Liebeslieder Walzer, went less smoothly, due to the many solo songs. Though each soloist did a worthy job of conveying the words’ spirit, many of them had audible difficulties grappling with the music. One bright exception to this was Carey Goldenberg, who sang “Alles, alles in den Wind” with great assurance and with all the haughty disdain that the lyrics suggest.

The three strongest performances were those that came in between the two Brahms cycles. Guest soloist Tambra Black joined the Chorale in an appealingly nostalgia-soaked rendition of Poulenc’s “Les chemins de l’amour.” The finest singing of the afternoon was of Grieg’s rarely-heard song “Våren.” Soloist Jessica Melger and the Chorale sang warmly and with great sensitivity to all the colors of Grieg’s shifting timbres. Bill McDougall took a nice solo turn in a wistful performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s arrangement of “Ca’ the Yowes.”

The concert closed with Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are,” a popular standard among jazz musicians, but a song rarely heard in its original form, with all of its gorgeous countermelodies intact. Here, once again, the Chorale opted to reassign some of the solo lines to the chorus, producing a richer sound.

Plaudits are owed to Tammen and the Chorale for their programming. It is rare that works of the Viennese salons of the 1870’s, the Broadway stage of the 1930’s, and the Parisian cabarets of the 1940’s are allowed to mingle together in one concert. When the pieces are performed with flair for each individual style, as they were this afternoon, one can only wish that such mixtures would be tried more often.

Posted in Performances

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