Chicago Chorale celebrates 20 years with a luminous, wide-ranging program

Sun Jun 12, 2022 at 12:19 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Bruce Tammen conducted the Chicago Chorale Saturday night at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Lincoln Park. File photo: Erielle Bakkum

Surviving to celebrate a 20th anniversary is never guaranteed, especially for a smaller classical music group—and not least when that two-decade span includes a pandemic that brought live performance throughout much of the world to a standstill.

So it is fitting that the Chicago Chorale, the highly accomplished volunteer choir launched in Hyde Park and still conducted by founder Bruce Tammen, is billing its pair of concerts this weekend as a joyful 20th anniversary celebration. (The exact anniversary was last December. But as Tammen told the audience at Saturday’s concert in St. Vincent de Paul Parish on Chicago’s North Side, “Covid stole a year from us.”)

Over the years, the 60-voice choir has performed its share of standard choral masterworks ranging from Bach and Mozart to Faure and Duruflé. But Saturday’s concert of short pieces by American, Scandinavian, Baltic and Spanish composers embodied the chorus’s focus on going beyond the expected. 

The Chorale’s technical standards have always been high, and singing without masks, the ensemble sounded both luminous and precise on Saturday. 

As always, Tammen challenges his singers itself in terms of programming as well. With composers ranging from Palestrina and Grieg to Randall Thompson and contemporary Spanish composer Javier Centeno, the Chicago Chorale reveled in singing—and introducing its audience to—music well beyond familiar favorites.

The concert opened with a set of five pieces by American composers, among them selections from Alan Hovhaness’s 1958 cantata, Transfiguration, and traditional songs arranged by Alice Parker and Robert Shaw. The Hovhaness excerpt, “And as They Came Down from the Mountain,” was a haunting study in vocal color. As the chorale’s male voices intoned a dark, mysterious undercurrent, soloist Temmo Kinoshita described Christ’s disciples absorbing the sudden revelation that their leader was indeed divine. Colored by the minor scales of Hovhaness’s ancestral Armenia, Kinoshita’s long-lined, unhurried solos combined both bafflement and an awestruck will to believe.

In contrast, the arrangement of “Ride on, King Jesus” by Shaw and Parker had all the joyful zest of a revival meeting. Syncopated rhythms drove the tune of a beleaguered soul confident that the Lord was by his side. Starting in emphatic unison, the piece soon splintered into a kind of call and response, with sections of the choir overlapping in buoyant conversation.  

With its main aisle flanked by large, barrel-vaulted alcoves, the soaring St. Vincent de Paul Church is ideal for choral music. Especially in works with slower, simpler melodic lines like Randall Thompson’s “The Best of Rooms” and Palestrina’s Super flumina Babylonis, the choir’s sound became an almost physical object. The rich, deep men’s voices seemed to rise from unearthly depths while the glowing sopranos seemed to float amid heavenly heights. 

But even in more intricate pieces like Oculus non vidit by the Latvian composer Rihards Dubra, the choir’s sound emerged distinctly and was never diffuse. The singers’ tightly woven harmonies created a sumptuous blend, but each line had a clear, strong core. After the pandemic’s long moratorium on live performance, it still feels miraculous to be physically surrounded by radiant music.

In two weeks, a contingent of the Chicago Chorale heads to Spain for concerts–an auspicious finale to an anniversary well worth celebrating.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday in Hyde Park Union Church, 5600 S. Woodlawn.

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