Chicago Chorale brings glowing advocacy to Duruflé Requiem

Mon Jun 10, 2019 at 2:04 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Bruce Tammen conducted the Chicago Chorale in Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem Sunday at St. Thomas the Apostle Church. Photo: Erielle Bakkum

What are the odds? In an already packed week of events, a pair of the city’s top choruses are presenting the two most celebrated Requiems by French composers within 48 hours of each other.

The Chicago Chamber Choir will tackle Gabriel Fauré’s setting of the mass for the dead Tuesday night with the Lakeview Orchestra. And on Sunday afternoon the Chicago Chorale presented Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Hyde Park.

Duruflé’s oeuvre is a small one. The composer and organist was a relentlessly self-critical artist and only about a dozen works were completed to his satisfaction over his lifetime (1902-86). Serious injuries Duruflé suffered in a car accident also affected his creative output.

Duruflé’s Requiem remains his largest work and his most performed. Fauré’s Requiem was clearly the model but Durufle’s mass, begun during WWII and completed in 1947, possesses its own luminous sound and distinctive style, drawing strong inspiration from chant and Gregorian sources.

Bruce Tammen, artistic director of the Chorale, opted for the most intimate of the three versions, that for chorus and organ (though dispensing with that arrangement’s obbligato cello). The sheer visual size of the Chorale forces—sixty-eight singers spread across the wide chancel of the venue—made one worry that the massed sound would be too overwhelming for the music and this arrangement. 

But Tammen expertly scaled the voices to suit both the score and the space. St. Thomas the Apostle offers a pleasing acoustic—warm and clear yet not over-reverberant. (Facilities were a different matter; with just two small restrooms available, there were long preconcert waits in line for chorus and audience members alike.)

While the orchestral version offers more varied coloring and greater sonic impact, so superb and convincing was Sunday’s performance that it made a case for the organ version as the most effective of all.

The monastic beauty of the Requiem was evident throughout with Tammen drawing polished, well-blended and expressive vocalism from his nonprofessional singers. The Chorale conveyed the pure lyricism of the score, as with the shimmering joy of the Kyrie, the luxuriant harmonies of the Agnus Dei and the exultant heights reached by the soaring sopranos in the Sanctus.  

The performance was at its peak in the final sections—communicating the consolatory expression of the Lux Aeterna, the dark struggle of the Libera Me and reaching the ethereal deliverance of In Paradisum, with rich otherworldly singing under Tammen’s direction.

Baritone John Zadlo was excellent in his two solos with just the right blend of dignified gravitas and spiritual emotion. Mezzo-soprano Susan Payne O’Brien showed an ample if somewhat wobbly voice in the celebrated Pie Jesu; yet her rendering was bland and decidedly earthbound, singing the notes accurately but missing the music.

The crucial organ part was ideally executed by David Jonies. Deftly balanced with the Chorale throughout, the organ enveloped the voices with a warm, soothing glow, and Jonies delivered the modal harmonies, floor-shaking pedal points and chromatic drama as needed.

Tammen framed the Requiem with four shorter works, also centered on last things.

The afternoon led off with two nicely contrasted items. Messiaen’s A Sacrum Convivium!—the composer’s only a cappella liturgical work—was given a dedicated reading with the sopranos taking flight in the motet’s climax. 

Duruflé’s “Ubi Caritas,” the first of his Quatre Motets, is one of the composer’s loveliest inspirations, and received a refined and concentrated rendering with a worthy solo by tenor Christopher Swenson.

Tammen’s singers deftly charted the movement from darkness to light in Bach’s motet Komm, Jesu, komm—the only non-Gallic work on the program—and the repositioning of the Chorale members added antiphonal clarity to Bach’s contrapuntal lines. The mostly somber program closed on a joyous note with César Geoffray’s buoyant Dextera Domini.

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One Response to “Chicago Chorale brings glowing advocacy to Duruflé Requiem”

  1. Posted Jun 12, 2019 at 2:17 pm by Harriet J. Marty

    Dear Bruce,et al, The concert was transcendent.
    The Durufle was wonderfully sung. The shading, the obvious attention to the meaning of all the texts, made for a heartfelt and meaningful experience.
    Congratulations to you, Bruce, for the amazing work you have done in building this wonderful group of singers. The choice of rep was also wonderful, especially the Bach. God Bless! Harriet Marty

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