Chicago Chorale marks 20 years with festive Christmas program

Sun Dec 12, 2021 at 11:36 am

By Katherine Buzard

Bruce Tammen conducted the Chicago Chorale Saturday night at St. Michael’s Church. Photo: Erielle Bakkum

The Chicago Chorale belatedly celebrated its 20th anniversary with a festive Advent- and Christmas-themed concert Saturday night. The ambitious program featured mostly works and arrangements by 20th- and 21st-century composers, with some traditional carols and a few audience singalongs mixed in.

The Chorale was joined by the Axiom Brass Quintet, who opened and closed the program with short instrumental sets. Their first set started five minutes before the concert was slated to begin as a sort of introit as people found their seats. Although a nice idea, it did unfairly relegate this superb quintet to background music, and they did not get the undivided attention their playing deserved.

Axiom Brass opened with an arrangement of Jan Pieters Sweelinck’s “Hodie Christus natus est.” The overlapping lines of the Sweelinck rang brilliantly in the generous acoustic of St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Old Town, which, unfortunately, also meant that some of the details got lost. However, they set the tone for the concert nicely and there’s nothing like a brass ensemble to get one in the holiday spirit.

Photo: Erielle Bakkum

The mask-wearing Chorale, led by artistic director Bruce Tammen, then sang four sets, with three audience singalong carols in between. The ensemble began, appropriately, with an arrangement of the traditional Advent hymn, “O Come, O come Emmanuel” by Robert Shaw and Alice Parker. The choir immediately impressed with their blend and sensitivity, and Tammen drew out a comforting, pillowy sound from the choir.

Continuing in the same mysterious vein, Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat followed. The ensemble gave an accomplished performance of the difficult piece, which features tricky exposed dissonances and a wide range of dynamics. Their performance was especially laudable given that this, arguably the most difficult selection on the program, was only the second piece of the evening. 

During the Pärt, however, the impediment of the masks became apparent. Although the softer sections of the Magnificat were beautifully ethereal, the climactic moments were a bit dulled and the shine taken off the sound. It was obvious from Tammen’s gestures that he was trying to get more out of them, so it was a surprise when the sound did not meet the visual expectation. 

Of course, this is not their fault; a group of the Chorale’s size really should be wearing masks, and it is a small price to pay to allow this fine group to safely sing together again. However, the effects can be mitigated by encouraging the singers to sing consistently into the core of the sound and with more ping. This may have required a shorter program, as this takes greater energy. The Chorale proved they could cut through the fabric in a few instances, though, such as in Undine Smith Moore’s spiritual “I Believe This is Jesus,” which sparkled and radiated joy.

The rest of the program mixed old favorites, such as Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria” and John Tavener’s “The Lamb,” with arrangements of carols and new settings of sacred texts by contemporary composers such as Philip Stopford, Judith Weir, Javier Busto, and Stephen Paulus. 

One of the most effective offerings on the program was Stopford’s bittersweet “Lully, Lulla, Lullay,” which featured a soaring, crystalline solo by soprano Katie Little. Another hit was Stephen Paulus’s arrangement of “Silent Night,” which also made use of two soloists, soprano Janet Romo Bridget and tenor Temmo Kinoshita. Both possessing strong solo voices, the two singers negotiated the punishingly high tessitura with aplomb, especially given its late positioning in a lengthy program.

Closing out the choral portion of the concert was the belated premiere of a piece the Chorale had commissioned for their twentieth anniversary last year, a setting of the “Nunc dimitis” canticle by Spanish composer, Javier Centeno. It was a pleasant piece that fit in well within the sound worlds of the surrounding repertoire, though perhaps it would have had greater impact coming earlier in the program.

The Axiom Brass Quintet retook the stage to play four final instrumental arrangements, concluding with a flashy contrapuntal arrangement of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” by John Harbison that showed off their articulation skills. Although starting and finishing with Axiom Brass gave the concert a framing symmetry, it made the finale an awkward anticlimax. It would have been nice to finish with a grand brass and choir arrangement. 

Also, had the quintet’s offerings been interspersed among the choral sets, it would have given the singers a well-deserved break, as they sang nonstop for nearly an hour and a half. 

“A Chicago Chorale Christmas” will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday at St. Thomas the Apostle Church.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Chicago Chorale marks 20 years with festive Christmas program”

  1. Posted Dec 15, 2021 at 5:58 pm by Madelon Albert

    As usual, wish I could have been there with the best Chorale I know!

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