Chicago Chorale unearths musical gold with Steinberg’s “Passion Week”

Sat Nov 19, 2016 at 1:50 pm

By John Y. Lawrence

Bruce Tammen led the Chicago Chorale in a Russian program Friday night at Hyde Park Union Church.
Bruce Tammen led the Chicago Chorale in a Russian program Friday night at Hyde Park Union Church.

For those familiar with the eschatological book series, the title of Chicago Chorale’s concert on Friday night—“Left Behind”—might summon images of nonbelievers stranded on earth after their Christian brethren were raptured away.

But the Chorale’s concert at Hyde Park Union Church was concerned with the opposite dynamic: with Russian composers of sacred music left behind by Communism’s forced secularization.  

Conductor and artistic director Bruce Tammen began by leading the chorale through a series of four shorter hymns: two by Aleksandre Gretchaninoff, and one each by Pavel Chesnokov and Nikolai Golovanov. Although these composers are not household names to the general audience, the four selections they chose have carved a niche in the modern choral repertoire.

Tammen and the Chorale layered the alleluias at the end of Chesnokov’s “Salvation is Created” with care. And they delivered the more old-fashioned melodies of the Gretchaninoff pieces with the simplicity they require.

But the highlight of the opening set was the performance of Golovanov’s setting of the Lord’s Prayer. In the initial phrases, Tammen and the Chorale produced the rich, resonant vertical sound with shapely molding of phrases in the horizontal, which they would maintain throughout the hymn.  

The centerpiece of the evening was Maximilian Steinberg’s Passion Week. Inspired by Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, Steinberg composed this eleven-song cycle in 1923, just as the Soviet ban on church music took hold.

Although published in Paris in 1925, Passion Week lingered in obscurity, and did not receive its premiere until 2014 in Portland, Oregon. Friday night’s concert marked the work’s Chicago premiere, and only its third complete performance in the United States.

Comparisons to the Rachmaninoff work are inevitable. Steinberg’s cycle sounds at once older and newer than his more famous compatriot’s. The oldness is partly a product of the source material: a with Rachmaninoff, nearly all (but one here) of the movements are derived from chant, primarily Znamenny chant. The newness stems from Steinberg’s more expansive harmonic vocabulary. His spare yet freer use of dissonance is intelligently deployed for dramatic effect.  

The piece demonstrated the characteristic strengths and minor weaknesses of the Chicago Chorale. In the credit column: a varnished sound when singing in full textures, crisp diction, and a sensitivity to dynamics. In the debit column: a pinched, warbling tone in the sopranos’ high range and an inconsistency among the ensemble’s soloists.

The finest solo singing of the evening was Nicole Eubanks’s alto solo in the fourth movement, “When the Disciples,” which was burnished and warm. Tenor Michael Schrag has a pleasing timbre, but had difficulty projecting over the rest of the choir during some of his solos. And the lovely trio in the eighth movement, “The Wise Thief,” sung by Megan Balderston, Kate Price, and Nicole Eubanks, suffered from a few jarring intonational slips.

But the virtues of the Chorale were on display in precisely some of the moments one would expect to be thorniest. Steinberg’s harmonic language turns most luxuriant in the middle of the fifth song “Welcome, Thou Feast Divine” and the opening of the seventh “Joseph of Arimathea.” The singing in these passages was deft and clear, inviting the listener to wallow in the part-writing.

Even with technical quibbles, no one should be deterred from attending. This is a major neglected major work, which is hopefully about to gain its overdue entrance into the choral canon. And you will want to be there to hear it ushered in, by a conductor and choir so obviously sympathetic to its idiom.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at St. Vincent de Paul Parish.

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