Ferris Chorale returns “home” for the holidays with rewarding Christmas program

Sun Dec 14, 2014 at 2:55 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Paul French led the William Ferris Chorale in their annual Christmas program Saturday at Mount Carmel Church.
Paul French led the William Ferris Chorale in their annual Christmas program Saturday at Mount Carmel Church.

The weather may have been unseasonably mild for December, but the William Ferris Chorale once again provided welcome holiday warmth. The Chorale’s Christmas programs have been a Chicago mainstay for over four decades, yet Saturday’s concert at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church was a genuinely special occasion.

The beautiful church on Belmont Avenue was the home of the Chorale for over 25 years, until the ensemble decamped to Loyola’s Madonna della Strada Chapel a few seasons ago.

The reason for the separation remains murky but, happily, all appears to be resolved. Chorale music director Paul French was clearly moved to have the Chorale back at his home parish and thanked Mount Carmel’s pastor Fr. Patrick Lee for his efforts in restoring the relationship. (Ferris Chorale cofounder and longtime artistic director John Vorrasi says that Mount Carmel will once again be a regular venue for concerts along with Loyola’s Madonna Chapel and Emmanuel Episcopal Church in La Grange.)

French put together an especially rewarding program titled “Now Make We Mirth” for the occasion, offering a significant premiere and some lesser-known treasures alongside the usual discerning selections of carols. Words could have been clearer at times but the performances were unfailingly fluent and expressive under French’s alert direction.

John Joubert is not a familiar name on these shores but the prolific 86-year-old British composer clearly deserves wider recognition. His Five Songs of Incarnation was heard in its American premiere.

The Nativity-inspired work is distinctive in both style and construction. A solo tenor sings short introductions from the Gospel of St. John in cantor-like fashion, while the five texts draw on words from medieval carols.

Joubert’s music is melodic and finely crafted yet never simplistic. The five sections are deftly contrasted, written with contrapuntal skill and economy, moving into thorny harmonic regions in the latter settings. Tenor Micah Dingler tackled the challenging tenor preludes with flexible sensitivity and Carling FitzSimmons soared in the stratospheric solo passages for soprano. French and all the Chorale members gave this U.S. premiere a polished and successful American debut.

Two other works offered fine discoveries. William Hawley’s O Magnum Mysterium opens in evocative fashion with the women’s voices coming as if from a distance. Hawley’s imaginative setting has roots in the Renaissance yet mixes the polyphony within a luminous modern idiom. French led a blended and controlled reading.

Healey Willan’s The Three Kings, which immediately followed, was nearly as striking, the madrigal-like lines showing clever text painting, as with the sopranos’ high leap on “light.”

Dmitry Bortniansky’s “Glory to God in the Highest” from his Choral Concerto No. 6 was the highlight of a Slavic set. The singers handled the virtuosic lines with aplomb and brought a layered radiance to the concluding section, the music conveying the Russian Orthodox atmosphere like incense.

The concert also offered the usual discerning choice of international seasonal carols. Notable were Philip Ledger’s lilting arrangements of On Christmas Night and Good Christian Men, Rejoice, as well as Edwin Fissinger’s Love Came Down at Christmas, a lovely setting of Christina Rossetti. Bonaventura Somma’s beautiful Nenia Pastorale was given a rapt and intimate performance with pure shimmering soprano tone.

The only outright clinker was the closer, a chaotically over-complex arrangement of Ding Dong Merrily on High.

But it was preceded by one of the high points of the evening: Z. Randall Stoope’s gorgeous, warm-textured All My Heart This Night Rejoices, rendered with glowing expressive intensity by the Ferris singers.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in LaGrange. williamferrischorale.org

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Ferris Chorale returns “home” for the holidays with rewarding Christmas program”

  1. Posted Dec 15, 2014 at 9:33 pm by Kirin Nielsen

    It was indeed a special concert, and I was very happy to hear the Joubert pieces. I’ve sung two of his much-older carols, which are also very much simpler, so this was quite ear-opening! And I agree that the Hawley was beautiful. I would like to hear it again…or, better yet, to sing it. Organist Kelly Dobbs Mickus gave a fine performance, too. The basses made a nice, warm sound that wasn’t too heavy, and the sopranos were seraphic.

    The back of the program announced the rest of the season, and I am particularly glad that Pizzetti’s Requiem will be on the next concert. This is a special, important work that I’ve known for more that 20 years, but have never heard in live performance.

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