Bella Voce closes its season with exultant Vivaldi along with Purcell and Handel rarities

Mon May 20, 2019 at 12:37 pm

By John von Rhein

Andrew Lewis conducted Bella Voce Sunday in Evanston.

The Chicago vocal ensemble Bella Voce effectively closed the circle for its final concert of the season Sunday afternoon at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston.

Having introduced its resident period-instrument group, Bella Voce Sinfonia, at the season-opening performances of Bach’s B Minor Mass in November, artistic director Andrew Lewis’s choir joined forces with its new “house” band to present an intriguing program of music by three giants of the baroque era – Henry Purcell, George Frideric Handel and Antonio Vivaldi.

What made the season finale so interesting, besides the typically lively and stylish performances, was its juxtaposition of the familiar – Vivaldi’s evergreen Gloria  – with the relatively unfamiliar, far less often performed St. Cecilian ode Welcome to all the pleasures by Purcell and Handel’s 11th and final Chandos Anthem, Let God Arise.

Lewis’ willingness to go that extra distance, repertoire-wise, is one of the main factors that set his a cappella group apart from its city rivals.

The director did not hold back when it came to bringing out the sometimes startling harmonic clashes in Purcell’s tribute to St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, by his professional-amateur Musical Society on the saint’s feast day, Nov. 22, 1683. The music comes from the English composer’s top drawer, coloring the words of Christopher Fishburn’s effusive text in a way that helped to free English music from its archaic shackles, and setting it on a course that would lead to Handel’s achievements in choral and instrumental writing several decades later.

The Bella Voce singers and players brought vibrancy and urgency to Welcome to all the pleasures, the intimacy of the high-vaulted interior enhancing the graceful joyousness of Sunday’s performance. The positioning of the 14-member sinfonia in front of the 20-voice choir gave somewhat greater prominence to the instruments than the voices, a balance one found rather more beneficial to the Purcell and Handel pieces than the Vivaldi, although this didn’t dim the pleasures of the Gloria. Solo and choral declamation was as clear as the reverberant church acoustics would allow.

As composer in residence to James Brydges, Earl of Carnaryon (he was later named Duke of Chandos), Handel provided the earl’s private band of singers and players with 11 anthems and several other works, including Acis and Galatea. The final anthem, from 1718, draws in part on music Handel wrote for his psalm setting Dixit Dominus and masterfully intertwines the solo and choral voices with an orchestra consisting of strings, oboe, trumpet and organ-lute continuo. Sunday’s vocal and instrumental contingent was approximately the same size of ensemble the composer might have used.

Lewis’ lively reading brought out the drama of the psalm text, most vividly when the music depicts an Old Testament God sternly punishing the unrighteous. The chorus sounded properly exultant, while the piquant timbre and light-footed articulation of oboist Geoffrey Burgess, flavored the solo singing deliciously.

The tenor aria “Like as the smoke vanisheth” was stylishly delivered by Oliver Camacho, pleasingly soft-grained of timbre and attentive to word meanings (note his emphasis of “perish” in the line “Let the ungodly perish at the presence of God”). The soprano aria “Let the righteous be glad” was beautifully sung by Hannah De Priest, a natural Handelian, shining of tone and finely poised of expression.

So accustomed are we to hearing big-chorus performances of the popular Vivaldi Gloria that smaller-scaled versions such as what Bella Voce presented on Sunday come off as almost radical. Lewis enforced brisk tempos throughout, and his choral, instrumental and solo vocal forces were fully prepared to give him the lean textures, buoyant rhythms and crisply articulated passagework he asked for. As “chamber” Glorias go, this one blew away the cobwebs most refreshingly, as Bella Voce is wont to do.

The chorus did a yeoman-like job of shaping phrases and pointing rhythms at speeds that might have confounded less technically accomplished groups. The sinfonia, made up of some of the area’s finest period musicians (Martin Davids is the concertmaster), was a pleasure to hear throughout.

All three soloists were admirable. The expressive, velvet-toned contralto Anna VanDeKerchove excelled in both the “Domine Deus, Agnus Dei” solo with chorus, also the “Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris.” Burgess’s embellishments of the oboe part in the “Domine Deus” enhanced the serene glow of soprano Henriet Fourie’s solo singing; the solo singing was, by comparison, rather bare of ornamentation.

One day, perhaps, Lewis and friends will see fit to bring us a rare local hearing of Vivaldi’s “other” Gloria, the RV 588.

In addition to the solo singers mentioned above, there were worthy contributions from alto Claire Shepro and bass-baritone Vince Wallace.

Posted in Performances

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