Bella Voce wraps season in high style with a luminous English program

Wed Apr 27, 2022 at 10:39 am

By Landon Hegedus

Andrew Lewis conducted Bella Voce Sunday at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston. Photo: Chris Ruggles

The superb Chicago choir Bella Voce closed its season Sunday afternoon with a luminous program of works by English composers, entitled “Many are the Wonders.”

The other key element of this program—presented at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston—was the church’s organ, crafted by legendary organ builder Ernest M. Skinner and played on this occasion by excellent local organist Stephen Buzard in his debut with the ensemble. The Opus 327 organ is a prized specimen of Skinner’s work, kept in remarkable condition thanks to the efforts of St. Luke’s and the eponymous not-for-profit organization dedicated to its preservation. Sunday’s performance was one of many planned at the church to mark the 100th anniversary of its construction in October 2022.

The program’s first half was bookended by two works that tested the mettle of this pairing of voices and organ. Elgar’s Give Unto the Lord, cast some initial doubts as the concert’s opener. Conducted by artistic director Andrew Lewis, the ensemble delivered the work’s ecclesiastic declarations with rich, full-grained sound and seamless blend, but even the clearest articulation was obscured in the mighty organ’s portentous moments. 

The Second Service by Kenneth Leighton, found better balance between the two parties. In this setting of the evening canticles, the propulsive keyboard accompaniment offered ample rhythmic support without overwhelming the chorus.

Bella Voce’s program also paid homage to two masters of English polyphony in a pair of a capella works—liturgical settings by Thomas Tallis and William Byrd paired with 21st-century compositions inspired by their Renaissance counterparts. 

Byrd’s chant on the Eastertide liturgy Ave verum corpus is standard choral fare, and Lewis led the Bella Voce musicians with great care in a beautifully nuanced yet transparent reading. The unadorned performance was an ideal setup for Roderick Williams’ Ave verum corpus Re-imagined, which borrows aspects of Byrd’s composition and reworks them into a supremely haunting contemporary arrangement. Williams’ polytonal writing creates the aural effect of watercolors blooming upon canvas, and the choir’s pristine tone and acute intonation rendered the prismatic harmonies of this retooled Byrd with utter clarity.

In the program’s second half, Thomas Tallis’s “Loquebantur variis linguis” was paired with Ken Burton’s Many are the Wonders. Bella Voce’s singers displayed their technical chops with gleaming sound and crisp articulation in Tallis’s motet, while Lewis keenly parsed the work’s web of polyphony, guiding the singers through the jaunty rhythms. Though perhaps the weaker of the two reimagined settings, Burton’s piece set the stage for the magnificent tenor Carl Alexander, whose voluminous solo declamations in the work’s incipits alone made the performance a highlight.

Stephen Buzard

Two pieces for solo organ illuminated the extraordinary talents of Stephen Buzard, who is the organist and music director at St. James Cathedral. If the pedigree of that institution wasn’t impressive enough for Buzard’s abilities—his predecessors in that role include Leo Sowerby—Buzard’s performance on Sunday left no question unanswered. 

William McKie’s arrangement of William Walton’s Orb and Sceptre, a stately coronation march in the vein of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, was the obvious crowd favorite, but the full scope of Buzard’s prowess was on view in Herbert Howell’s Rhapsody No. 3 in C-Sharp Minor. Composed overnight during an air raid upon York in 1918, the showpiece’s explosive, angular harmonies and plunging acrobatics echo the violent circumstances of its wartime inspiration. Buzard exhibited stellar keyboard technique and finesse throughout the rhapsody’s staggering contours; one could hardly imagine a better spokesperson for both this work and the remarkable timbral capabilities of Skinner’s magnificent instrument. 

Among the program’s other high points was Patrick Gowers’ Viri Galilaei, an evocative musical portrait of the biblical Ascension. The organ forces were expanded by Michael Rees, who joined Buzard to perform secondo in the piece’s virtuosic accompaniment, while Stephen Richardson lent his limpid baritone to sing the words of Jesus.

Completing the program was See that I am God, an exultant statement by Belizean-born British composer Errollyn Wallen, who was among the audience for this concert. Commenting on his affection for the work in his closing remarks, Lewis — an eloquent and charismatic host throughout the afternoon’s proceedings — humbly noted, “I hope we can do it justice.” That the singers of Bella Voce certainly did under Lewis’s skillful direction. Wallen seemed to agree, joining the rest of the audience in a standing ovation. 

Sunday’s fine performances bode well for Bella Voce’s 2022-23 season as well as the centennial celebration of Skinner’s instrument this fall.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Bella Voce wraps season in high style with a luminous English program”

  1. Posted Apr 28, 2022 at 8:11 am by James Weiss

    One might point out that Walton’s Orb and Sceptre was written for HM The Queen’s coronation in 1953. She celebrates her 70th anniversary on the throne in 2022. I’m guessing that’s why it was programmed.

  2. Posted Apr 28, 2022 at 12:14 pm by John Paul Buzard

    What a splendid review of the concert and son Stephen’s performance!

    Did you know that my organ-building firm is the curator of the St. Luke’s Skinner Organ, and the instrument at St. James Cathedral? Stephen’s mom is the Organist/Choirmaster at the Episcopal Chapel of St. John the Divine in Champaign. Daughter Katherine is a singer and arts writer in Chicago. Our family is pretty unusual in this regard, I’d say!

    Thank you for that fantastic review!

    JP Buzard

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