Bella Voce makes the season bright with Britten

Sun Dec 10, 2023 at 2:04 pm

By John von Rhein

Andrew Lewis conducted Bella Voce in Britten’s Ceremony of Carols Saturday night at Ganz Hall. Photo: Magda Krance

‘Tis the time of year when dancing sugarplums, “Hallelujah” choristers and myriad other Christmas offerings can leave classical music consumers paralyzed for choice.

Which concerts to go to and which to skip? My advice: Seek out those performers that have something truly distinctive to share—something few others can be relied upon to deliver at a comparable level.

The choral ensemble Bella Voce’s Christmas program presented Saturday night at Roosevelt University’s Ganz Hall is making the season bright with the sort of offbeat musical potpourri director Andrew Lewis’ splendid choristers have made their seasonal signature.

The compact but rewarding agenda brought together nine women’s voices—six sopranos and three altos—to perform Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, preceded by seasonally appropriate gems of Renaissance polyphony and brief modern pieces representing the English cathedral tradition. The performances proved to be as dapper as the director-host’s red jacket.

A Ceremony of Carols (1942), Britten’s most popular choral work, sets nine medieval and 16th-century poems between the “Hodie” of the plainsong Vespers, accompanied by harp. Most of the texts are in Middle English, fleshed out by Latin and modern English. A Procession and Recession based on the Gregorian antiphon “Hodie Christus natus est” (“Today Christ is born”) serves as a framing device.

Although the piece is most often heard in a version for SATB mixed chorus, it was originally written for women’s voices, and it was in this ear-opening form that Lewis’ chamber choir presented it on Saturday.     

Clearly the director had spent a great deal of time and effort over diction—not simply getting his singers to make the archaic English sound utterly natural in Britten’s musical context, but highly expressive as well. The effect was an aural refresher—true to the composer’s purpose of filtering the medieval celebration of the Annunciation and Virgin Birth through a 20th century prism.

Britten’s typically controlled handling of canonic devices, such as in the penultimate section “Deo Gracias,” was reflected in neatly interlaced responses by the Bella Voce singers—uniformly secure in blend, balance, intonation, rhythmic control and, most importantly, sensitively attuned to the words.

Alison Attar made a superb harp soloist in the atmospheric Interlude and elsewhere, adding much to the success of the whole.

Ganz Hall may not provide the ideal acoustical halo for such music (the warmer sonics of St. Luke’s Episcopal are preferable) but the small hall provided a perfectly congenial setting for clear projection of text, in the Britten and in the shorter pieces that came before it.

Two masters of Spanish Renaissance polyphony, Cristobal de Morales and Tomas Luis de Victoria, stood out for the sheer ethereal beauty of their motets O magnum mysterium and O regnem caeli/Natus est nobis, respectively. The compact choral counterpoint in a Jacob Handl motet shone a spotlight on the solid harmonic foundation provided by the three alto voices.

The 20th century pieces for treble choir by Boris Ord (Barry Rose’s arrangement of Adam Lay Ybounden), Gerald Hendrie, Jean Collot and Patrick Hadley came off to lovely effect in inverse proportion to their extreme brevity, not least Hadley’s I Sing of a Maiden with its concluding slow, ethereal fade to silence.

The program will be repeated 4 p.m. Sunday at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston.

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