Ferris Chorale marks the Lenten season with ecumenical meditations on loss

Sat Mar 30, 2019 at 3:34 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Benjamin Rivera conducted the William Ferris Chorale Friday night at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church.

The William Ferris Chorale has often presented some of its most interesting programming with spring concerts marking the Lenten season. This year is no exception with two rarely heard works making up its program Friday night at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church. The program will be repeated Saturday night in Oak Park.

While both of the works reflect the historic Roman Catholic orientation of both the Chorale and its home venue, each broadens the specific Christian Easter message of Christ’s death and resurrection to a broader, more ecumenical take on death, loss and transcendence.

The ensemble revisited Gabriel Jackson’s Requiem Friday night, which was first presented by the Ferris Chorale in 2012.

The British composer’s 2008 work freely mixes sections of the traditional Latin mass for the dead with poems from non-Christian cultures and spiritual traditions. The intent, says Jackson, is to combine “the solemn, hieratic grandeur” of the traditional requiem mass with “something more personal, more intimate,” and reflect more of an “individual as well as universal experience of loss.”

Jackson achieves this more often than not. His work opens with a soaring Requiem aeteranam I, strikingly beautiful music sung with remarkable finish and purity by the Ferris sopranos. If some of the secular texts flirt with banality—at least in their English translations—Jackson’s varied responses and resourceful vocal writing maintain interest and contrast—not least in the ecstatic climax to the Sanctus and the elevated peace of the concluding Lux aeterna.

Unfortunately, Jackson makes a major miscalculation in that finale, having a mezzo read a translation of the text in English—the effect is jarring and didactic, taking one out of the music entirely, and recalling unwonted memories of being admonished at catechism class.

The Ferris Chorale has been without a music director since Paul French took an amicable leave in December of 2016 to concentrate on composition. Yet—apart from an underprojected baritone solo—the 24 singers sounded in wonderful shape in this intensely challenging music under guest conductor Rivera. The sopranos were astonishing, tackling the stratospheric passages of Jackson’s score with faultless intonation and refined tone throughout.

Rivera directed a cohesive, seamlessly balanced and expressive performance. The one issue was a persistent lack of clarity with the texts. This venue is infamous for its resonant acoustic but the words still need to be more clearly articulated than was the case Friday night. Minutes went by as one tried in vain to locate the text being sung, such was the gauzy diction.

After intermission, Rivera and the Chorale members alighted to the church’s high back choir loft for James MacMillan’s Cantos sagrados—likely to insure closer coordination with the prominent organ part, played here by Eric Budzynski.

Written in 1989, Cantos sagrados is an early work by the Scottish composer. As he notes, the title (“Sacred Songs”) is something of a misnomer since the main sources are three secular poems reflecting a response to political repression in Latin America. Combined with traditional religious texts, Cantos sagrados makes clear MacMillan’s Liberation Theology influences, the two sources blended “to emphasize a deeper solidarity with the poor of that subcontinent.”

MacMillan’s politics may have evolved in the intervening decades, but what has not changed is his fiery passion and his music’s consistent manifestation of his Roman Catholic faith. 

The opening section “Identity” opens with a harshly chromatic organ flourish, the emphatic staccato chords soon taken up by the chorus singing an Ariel Dorfman text about dead bodies of loved ones found in the river; that text alternates with  the more ecclesiastical, chant-like contrast of the “Libera animas omnium fidelium.”

Yet despite such arresting moments, Cantos sagrados doesn’t quite hang together. The long central section setting Ana Maria Mendoza’s “Virgin of Guadalupe” is too unvaried and monochrome, albeit spiced by some crunchy William Matthias-like organ writing. 

A feeling of solace and benediction is reached in the final section: a mixture of Dorfman’s “Sun Stone” (telling of a soldier’s sympathy for a dissident about to be executed) and the Et incarnatus est, the work concluding with soothing, radiant tones from the organ and chorus.

No quibbles about the performance with Rivera skillfully balancing the voices with the organ solos, the latter given supreme advocacy by Budzynski. The singers’ enunciation and words were more distinct here sung from the choir loft, than they were from the front of the church in the Jackson Requiem.

MacMillan’s opus was preceded by two short works from the British composer Owain Park, which further reflected upon the program’s valedictory theme. For the fallen is a skillful and effective setting of Laurence Binyon’s famous poem honoring the WW I war dead, crafted in shifting, overlapping eight-part lines. 

Even more striking was Park’s Beati quorum via, a work of rich tranquil beauty, sensitively sung by the Ferris Chorale under Rivera’s direction. With music this accomplished, written in 2014 when he was just 21, Owain Park is clearly a young composer to watch.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the First United Church of Oak Park. williamferrischorale.org

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