A shining night of spiritual music from the Chicago Chorale

Sat Nov 18, 2017 at 11:39 am

By Hannah Edgar

Bruce Tammen conducted the Chicago Chorale Friday night at Hyde Park Union Church.
Bruce Tammen conducted the Chicago Chorale Friday night at Hyde Park Union Church.

Often, when presenting a tasting-menu program of numerous far-flung but short pieces, ensembles inevitably hit their stride in some repertoire and stumble in others.

Not so with the Chicago Chorale. Led by founding artistic director Bruce Tammen, the polished 60-voice amateur ensemble opened its 17th season Friday night in Hyde Park Union Church by balancing remarkable variety with consistent quality.

That’s not to say the repertoire was totally heterogeneous. The theme of the concert was contemporary choral music which, in Tammen’s words, “resonates more on an emotional level than on an academic one”—in other words, practically all the pieces waded in the untroubled waters of conventional diatonic harmony. Moreover, all but two of the pieces on the program were based on Biblical and liturgical texts in some way—hence the program title “O magnum mysterium,” a responsorial chant from the Matins of Christmas. The title was also a nod to the two settings of the text featured on the program, by Ola Gjeilo and Morten Lauridsen.

A different Lauridsen chestnut opened the program: his emotive, almost folkish setting of “Sure on This Shining Night.” Tammen’s sensitive, well-paced direction successfully guided the Chorale and accompanist Kit Bridges, Jr. around mawkish pitfalls.

A concert like this wouldn’t have been complete without the requisite Arvo Pärt offering. His seven-minute Magnificat, entirely in rhythmic unison, foregrounds a soprano singing just one note: an octave above middle C. While soloist Katherine Price could have projected that moment with greater impact, Pärt’s ethereal, wide-open harmonies were well served by Tammen’s singers. The Chorale delivered, showcasing the exquisite blending and supple cutoffs that would remain themes throughout the evening.

Folksong and hymnal collided in Swedish composer Gunnar Eriksson’s Kristallen den fina (1996), which layers a Swedish folk tune, a Lutheran chorale, Gregorian chant, and original bass line on top of one another.

Eriksson’s piece also introduced a Nordic subtheme, with music of Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (who died last year) and Norwegian composers Knut Nystedt and Gjeilo also represented on Friday’s program.

Rautavaara’s short, probing “Ektenia of the Litany” from his Vigilia sets a short repeated text (Herra armahda, or “Lord have mercy”), with one line remaining static while the other creeps downwards stepwise. Knut Nystedt’s O crux also probes dissonance, albeit more entrancingly, underpinned by organ-like harmonies. The Chorale’s unflagging intonation and intricate ensemble beautifully rendered each work.

Cellist David Sands joined the Chorale for Gjeilo’s take on “O magnum mysterium.” His warm, quietly passionate cello solo well set the tone for the tranquil work, and as an accompanist, he was a deferential and articulate partner.

The earliest piece on the program by 50 years, Gabriel Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine might have seemed out of place on paper. However, the composer’s early piece for choir and keyboard accompaniment has proved remarkably far-sighted, in some places recalling Ives’s more buttoned-up songs. The Chorale and Bridges’s wistful, even restless performance advocated for this work anew.

Tammen’s program notes candidly mention that Clytus Gottwald’s vocal arrangement of Gustav Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” posed a daunting challenge for the Chorale. This, alas, was noticeable, with some shaky intonation here, some muddiness there. Tammen opted for the straight and narrow interpretively, and one might have wished for the elasticity afforded to other pieces on the program. However, on the whole, the Chorale’s expressive and powerful performance well served Gottwald’s truly heroic arrangement, which disperses the solo vocal line throughout the choir in a chordal mist.

It was easy to see why the Chorale would center Lauridsen’s “O magnum mysterium” in its program. The seven-minute piece is mostly diatonic, but when an alien note arrives—on the word “Virgo”—it lands with a stab. The Chorale made this viscerally felt, performing this modern choral classic with conviction and lucidity.

Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds’s O salutaris hostia (2009) seemed to occupy the same folk–liturgical space as Kristallen den fina, setting a hymnal text by Thomas Aquinas to a simple, ear-wormy melody sung by two soprano soloists over a simple progression. Talented vocalists both, Leslie Mataya and Janet Romo-Bridgett traversed the many octave leaps in the solo part with ease. 

The concert closed not far from where it began, with “The Road Home” by the late American composer Stephen Paulus. Based on a hymn from The Southern Harmony Songbook but with a new text by the poet Michael Dennis Browne, Paulus’s earnest, eloquent setting was an appropriate parting song. Gratefully, it shed a much-belated spotlight on soprano Rebecca Blumer, who took center stage with a brilliant solo, which, despite its brevity, left a lasting impression.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at  St. Vincent DePaul Parish. chicagochorale.org; 773-306-6195

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “A shining night of spiritual music from the Chicago Chorale”

  1. Posted Nov 18, 2017 at 2:19 pm by Marlin Hoover

    A most emotionally evocative performance… moving with just enough variation… outstanding blend of voices as well as stark contrasts engaged us throughout this excellent performance

  2. Posted Dec 09, 2017 at 6:27 am by Abigail Wuerffel

    Thank you! We continue to be blessed in hearing the music of the chorale. Thank you.

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