Ferris Chorale delivers customary Christmas cheer in a transitional season

Sat Dec 07, 2019 at 1:51 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Paul French led the William Ferris Chorale’s holiday program Friday night at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church.

Among the most venerable of Chicago holiday musical traditions are the Christmas programs of the William Ferris Chorale, a seasonal mainstay for the ensemble’s 48-year history.

Much has changed since the Chorale’s heyday in the 1980s and 1990s when seating was scarce at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church for these events. Bill Ferris died of a heart attack in 2000 at age 63 while rehearsing Verdi’s Requiem. John Vorrasi, Ferris’s partner and Chorale cofounder, continued to manage the Chorale, until his passing in 2015.

Fortunately, an astute choice was made with Ferris’s successor. A gifted composer, deft programmer and conductor of selfless integrity, Paul French led the Chorale with continuing artistic accomplishment for 15 years from 2001 through 2016.

French, now music director emeritus, returned to lead the Ferris Chorale’s Christmas program Friday night at Mount Carmel Church.

After a somewhat unsettled period after French’s tenure ended, the Chorale appears to be getting its house in order as the organization approaches its 50th anniversary in 2021. In this transitional season, two of the three finalists for music director will conduct “audition” concerts for the post: Christopher Windle, artistic director of Chicago Chamber Choir—who was in attendance Friday—will lead the Chorale in February.  And Anthony Blake Clark, music director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, will direct a program in April. (The third candidate, Benjamin Rivera, led the Chorale last March.)

Aptly for this time of change in its history, the program French assembled looked back at the Chorale’s past and forward to its future. Though shorter than Ferris’s own famously generous programs, the concert lineup roughly echoed its founder’s favored order of battle for these holiday events (minus the organ obbligato)—a bit of Renaissance polyphony to begin, some weightier fare and international carols, closing with a few populist seasonal favorites.

The evening led off with Giovanni Gabrieli’s Hodie Christus Natus Est. With the Chorale’s 24 voices divided into two groups—placed at the front and left side of the church at a 90 degree angle—French led a majestic reading with the antiphonal choirs taking flight in Gabrieli’s Venetian polyphony.

French marked the passing of three composers this year who were friends of the Chorale with selections by John Joubert, Leo Nestor and Paul Bouman.

Joubert’s Five Songs of Incarnation was the largest work on the program. The Ferris Chorale presented the American premiere of Joubert’s Nativity cycle in 2014. Reworked from the British composer’s earlier Five Carols for Five Voices, the work mixes introductory texts from St. John with medieval carols, in music that is rich, varied and melodic, gently accented by crunchy dissonance (as in the final setting “Let us gather hand in hand”).

Though occasionally stretched by the high tessitura, tenor Jonathan Zeng brought dedication to his cantorial role, singing the St. John texts with dignified solemnity. In the opening song, “Of a Rose, a Lovely Rose,” and “I sing of a Maiden” Jennifer Haworth offered some extraordinary solo moments, her pure, luminous soprano soaring to stratospheric regions seemingly without effort.

The Chorale’s singing at large in the Joubert set was just as accomplished under French’s direction, conveying the quirky celebration of “Make we joy now in this feast” as surely as the rich harmonies and spiritual confidence of “When Christ was born of Mary.”

Of the rest of the program, soprano soloist Tracie Davis brought an idiomatic gospel sensibility to Leo Nestor’s arrangement of the lullaby, “Jesus, Jesus Rest Your Head.” Other highlights included Louis-Claude Daquin’s buoyant “Pueri Nobix” and the joyous vitality of Alfred Burt’s “Caroling, Caroling” and William Walton’s playful “What Cheer?” 

William Ferris’s touch was characteristic in the Chorale founder’s intimate and consolatory “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly,” written on a Christmas Day afternoon. Most affecting of all was Z. Randall Stroope’s drop-dead gorgeous “All My Heart This Night Rejoices,” the women’s voices soaring heavenward on the Gloria.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in LaGrange.

Christopher Windle conducts the William Ferris Chorale in “From Sorrow to Light” February 15 and 16, 2020. williamferrischorale.org

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Ferris Chorale delivers customary Christmas cheer in a transitional season”

  1. Posted Dec 07, 2019 at 4:05 pm by Steve Roess

    A wonderful concert, with the chorale sounding as good as ever.

    “All My Heart This Night Rejoices” was the evening’s high point for me.

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