Chicago Chorale winningly mixes the sacred and sultry with “Misatango”

Sun Mar 26, 2023 at 12:19 pm

By Tim Sawyier

Bruce Tammen led the Chicago Chorale in Martin Palmeri’s Misatango Saturday night at St. Michael’s Church in Old Town. Photo: Erielle Bakkum

Though Argentine composer Martín Palmeri composed his Misa a Buenos Aires between 1995 and 1996, the work—subtitled Misatango—was little known until a 2013 performance in Rome. That occasion honored the elevation of Buenos Aires cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to Pope Francis, and since then Misatango has taken off.

There is now even a “Misatango Festival” that affords choirs the opportunity to gather and perform Palmeri’s score under his guidance at one of several prominent European venues, though such popularity has remained largely international. 

The Chicago Chorale’s performance under artistic director Bruce Tammen at St. Michael’s Church in Old Town on Saturday night marked a rare opportunity for local audiences to hear a work fast becoming part of the wider world’s choral repertoire.

Misatango is a setting of the traditional Latin Mass in a variety of tango idioms. The fusion is perhaps unexpected due to stereotypical images of tango—impassioned, intertwined dancers staring fixedly into each other’s eyes, with women seductively gritting roses between their teeth. As one was reminded Saturday night, this is far too narrow an image of what is a subtle, varied and deeply expressive genre.

Palmeri’s opening “Kyrie” is sultry and percussive, and syncopated swagger pervades the ensuing “Gloria.” Misatango has a prominent solo part for mezzo soprano that was richly sung by Raquel Winnica Young on Saturday. Her solo moments and dark-hued timbre provided a spiritual, even melancholy counterpoint to the more dance-inflected textures, particularly in the inward “Qui tollis” and “Et incarnatus est” portions of the text.

The instrumental accompaniment consists of string quintet, piano, and bandoneon, the latter a small concertina that is a staple of tango ensembles. The “Sanctus” opened with a rhapsodic piano solo played by Kit Bridges as though from a cloud of cigarette smoke, and the instrumental ensemble provided incisive support and percussive flair throughout. The “Benedictus” felt warmly consolatory, which was in contrast to the concluding “Agnus Dei.” This last movement begins almost ominously in the bass depths of the choir, then builds and opens via a final mezzo solo into a more expansive closing “Dona nobis pacem.”

Tammen’s leadership was clear and committed, keeping his non-professional charges on track in Palmeri’s involved and unfamiliar score. While there were pitchy moments and fitfully unsteady ensemble, these were fleeting and did not detract from the overall impression of engaged dedication. Projects such as the Misatango are ideally suited to ensembles such as the Chorale, as lesser-known music is simply more forgiving of whatever technical limitations may pertain than more familiar choral fare.

The evening opened with two brief selections. Carlos Guastavino (1912-2000) has been called the “Schubert of the Pampas” for his conservative, melodic style, particularly at a time when his countryman Ginastera was aggressively pushing rhythmic and harmonic boundaries. The Chorale’s limpid performance of his La Rosa y el Sauce, a brief, wistful song of loss, showed Guastavino’s moniker an apt one.

The Chorale also offered a choral settling of Piazzolla’s Reminiscence, which with the other two works completed a compelling survey of the directions Argentine composers have taken their native tango.

Misatango will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Hyde Park.

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