Bella Voce Camerata do their part for Arvo Pärt’s 80th

Sun Oct 04, 2015 at 1:06 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Andrew Lewis led the Bella Voce Camerata in their opening concert Saturday night in RIver Forest.
Andrew Lewis led the Bella Voce Camerata in their opening concert Saturday night in River Forest.

Arvo Pärt has been making a deep and significant impact on the music scene for decades now, with his singular style of spiritual minimalism. The Estonian composer turned 80 last month and performances of his works are receiving renewed attention around the world.

Saturday night at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, the Bella Voce Camerata offered the first local homage in Pärt’s anniversary season with a performance of his Berliner Messe (Berlin Mass). Written in 1990, this Pentecostal setting is among Pärt’s most impressive works and characteristic works, drawing on chant and religious music of the past to create music of a glowing solace in a contemporary sensibility.

The Berlin Messe was originally written for four solo voices and organ, the composer later enlarging it for full chorus and string orchestra. Lewis elected for a middle ground, doubling the solo vocal lines with the superb Ars Antigua period-instrument ensemble providing string backing. In the highly resonant space, the voices made a full and surprisingly large sound, and with eyes closed, one would think it was a almost a full chorus.

In the early going the voices seemed to compete with the tangy string timbres, and a better balance might have been achieved with the singers in front of the instrumentalists rather than the other way around. At times, one also wanted a bit more of this score’s evocative, ecclesiastical style conveyed, with the Veni Sancte Spiritus section a bit too present and lacking otherworldly mystery.

Yet this was on the whole a well-prepared and sensitive rendering of this beautiful and affecting music, with the joyful aspect of the Gloria and spiritual confidence of the Credo were surely conveyed. Yet it was the predominating meditative sections that were most impressive. The opening Kyrie was poised and haunting and the two final sections evoked the right sense of elevated solace. There was stellar work from all the singers, not least sopranos Henriet Fourie Thompson and Kaitlin Foley who handled Pärt’s exposed, stratospheric writing with luminous tone and security.

Pärt’s mass was framed by three Bach cantatas.

It was interesting to hear the rarely performed Widerstehe doch der Sunde, BWV 545, the composer’s first cantata for solo voice. One of Bach’s darker settings, the text warns of certain death for unrepentant sinners. Yet countertenor Thomas Alaan’s prosaic, unsteady singing conveyed little of the spiritual drama or musical weight.

The two more optimistic cantatas that framed the evening came off better. Der Herr denket an uns, BWV 196, opened the evening and received a vital and buoyant reading with soprano Foley agile and pure-toned in the central solo aria.

The much better known Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied closed the evening. With no winds on hand, some of the solo obbligatos were given to strings which was a fair compromise though Lewis’s rescoring of one chorus for solo organ was less convincing. Still under his direction, with each of the singers paired with a member of Ars Antigua, the close-knit ensemble and joyous vocalism ended the evening on a celebratory note.

The program will be repeated 3:30 p.m. Sunday at St. Clement Parish in Chicago.

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