French goes out on a high holiday note with William Ferris Chorale

It was the end of an era Sunday afternoon when Paul French conducted his final concert as music director of the William Ferris Chorale at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Lakeview. French ended his eleven-year tenure at the helm of the ensemble on a high note, leading his singers in a holiday program titled “Christmas with the Chorale!” that was intelligently selected and expertly performed.

The performance opened with C. Hubert Parry’s inviting “Welcome Yule!” where the Chorale’s percussive accents set a festive tone. In two brief Renaissance motets—O beatum et sacrosanctum diem by Peter Philips and O magnum mysterium by Jacobus Gallus—the Chorale singers rendered each with a limpid collective resonance. 

R. L. Pearsall’s arrangement of “In Dulci Jubilo” had a gentle rocking quality and was excellently shaped. This was followed by a trio of works that constituted a tour of sixteenth-century polyphony: Johann Walther’s “Joseph, lieber Joseph mein,” Hans Leo Hassler’s “Dixit Maria ad Angelum,” and Praetorius’ “En natus est Emanuel,” where the Chorale again excelled with immaculate balance and warm sonorities.

The Chorale then turned to settings by its founder. Ferris’s “Hail Mary” had a forthright simplicity befitting the familiar prayer. “Lift Up Your Heads, O Mighty Gates” was both earnest and jubilant, and “Infant Holy, Infant Lovely” was delicately transparent. The Chorale provided fine advocacy for these settings, of which Ferris made over 400 that are still heard weekly at Our Lady of Mount Carmel services (where French will remain as music director).

The ensemble next featured four works from another repertoire they champion: music of lesser-known and local composers. Chad McCoy’s “Childing of a Maiden Bright” was emphatically modal, and the composer was on hand to receive enthusiastic applause. William Mathias’ “In Excelsis Gloria” was not terribly memorable, but pleasant enough to hear. French’s own take on the Ave Verum Corpus was written for a boys choir but sung Sunday by the WFC women, who made the setting’s close harmonies shimmer. Walton’s “What Cheer” was assertively syncopated and provided a strong period to the first half.

After intermission WFC board member and alto Kathleen Pacyna gave an update on the Chorale’s future, which sounded very much up in the air. She reiterated the Chorale’s mission of giving lesser known composers and unknown works a hearing, and asked audience members to “stay tuned” for information in the coming months. 

Two longer examples of William Ferris’s settings opened the second half. His eponymous Chorale gave husky treatment to his dark-hued Gentle Mary, and brought tenderness to Sleep, Holy Babe! A pair of offerings from Italian composer Licinio Refice followed, which were almost predictably the most operatic selections of the afternoon. Tu Scendi dalle Stelle was lilting and sincere, and Dormi, Non Piangere had a Verdian warmth.

French ceded the podium to Chorale soprano Carling FitzSimmons, who conducted two selections from Rorem’s Seven Motets for the Church Year. FitzSimmons helped to carry Rorem’s protracted phrases in “While All Things Were in Quiet Silence,” and gave “Before the Morning Star Begotten” a sunny treatment. With the Chorale soon to experience a void in artistic leadership, perhaps they need look no further than their own ranks.

Leo Sowerby was the organist and choir director at Chicago’s St. James Cathedral for 35 years, and was represented on the program by two works. “Lovely Infant” was the most dissonant of the afternoon’s selections and the Chorale emphasized the work’s chromaticism to great effect. “Love Came Down at Christmas” received an ardent reading.

Mount Carmel organist Kelly Dobbs Mickus gave Refice’s Puccini-like Berceuse a gentle treatment while French and the Chorale ascended to the choir rafters for two more Ferris settings. “Deep Down, Ye Heavens” was harmonically pungent and sung with gravitas by the WFC’s men. “Lullay, Jesu” was the only clunker of the afternoon–extended, wandering, and repetitious, it belonged somewhere other than near the end. 

The program closed with Stephen Chatman’s arrangement of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” which does a charming job dressing up the familiar melody. By way of an encore and as a farewell to French, the Chorale sang Peter Lutkin’s setting of “The Lord Bless You and Keep You,” which evoked an emotional response from Chorale members and many in the audience.

For information on future activities of the William Ferris Chorale, go to

Ferris Chorale delivers atmospheric performance of Pärt’s “Berliner Messe”

Reviewed by Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review, 3/13/16

A year ago the William Ferris Chorale marked the spiritual season with a concert of rarely heard Requiem settings by Bonaventura Somma and Ildebrando Pizzetti, and those rewarding works provided a musical highlight of 2015.

Friday night at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, the Chorale offered “Heaven Bound,” a more varied and variable Lenten program but one that showed the Ferris ensemble continuing to perform at a new peak under music director Paul French.

The clear highlight of Friday’s eclectic lineup was Arvo Pärt’s Berliner Messe. Performed to mark the 80th birthday season of the Estonian composer, the Berlin Mass was written in 1990 for a German Catholic festival and remains one of Pärt’s most characteristic and frequently performed works.

French elected to perform the mass from the choir loft at the back of the church. That may have left the audience with no visuals but proved the right decision creatively. The high, distanced perspective provided an ideal atmospheric sound, with fine clarity to the Chorale voices and organ while bestowing an apt ecclesiastical glow.

The performance of Pärt’s mass by the Chorus was extraordinary–polished, sensitive and wholly idiomatic, with the sopranos delivering the cool, luminous sound produced by the finest Baltic choruses. French’s direction let this beautiful music unfold with an inevitability to Pärt’s spare, simple lines.

The Gloria was ardent and expressive while the male voices etched a monastic quality at the start of the Veni Sancte Spiritus, the singers conveying the folk-like element in the rising and falling lines. The somber meditation of the organ-led Santus conveyed the searching qualities and the sopranos were almost faultless in the high tessitura of the concluding Agnus Dei. Eric Budzynski contributed elegant and understated organ playing and this inspired performance of the Berliner Messe proved a highlight of the Pärt anniversary year.

The first half was devoted largely to French music, in which the Chorale was joined for some selections by the 76 girls of the Spirito! Bravura ensemble.

Francis Poulenc famously left his satiric boulevardier style for a more serious, spiritually centered music after being shaken by a friend’s death in a car accident in 1936.

Poulenc’s Litanies a la Vierge Noir was the first fruit of his return to the Catholic faith of his youth. The consolatory harmonies were given a soothing performance by the Chorale and the young women of the Spirito ensemble, French drawing impressively refined and well-blended singing from the combined groups.

Poulenc’s Quatre Petites Prieres de Saint Francois D’Assisse proved just as inspiring. These four prayers to St. Francis offer some of Poulenc’s most glorious vocal writing, and the men of the Ferris Chorale gave first-class advocacy with tenor Micah Dingler contributing an apt cantorial solo.

Three works by Pierre Vilette showed that his music deserves to be better known. The rich harmonies and expressive profile of the Hymne a la Vierge was especially striking and sensitively sung by the full Ferris Chorale. Soprano Henriet Fourie contributed an ethereal solo in Villete’sSalve Regina.

The set of inspirational settings performed by the Spirito singers varied in quality of material with Andrea Ramsey’s treacly Heaven Unfolding recalling unsought memories of Catechism assembly hall. Yet the teen singers showed impressive cohesion and polish under artistic director Molly Lindberg. The young chorus handled the soaring phrases of Pablo Casals’ Nigra Sum with confidence and brought agility and elan to the up-tempo gospel of Rollo Dilworth’s Make a Joyful Noise. Matthew Gemmill was a worthy piano accompanist.

The opening Lauda Jerusalem Dominum by Jean Langlais proved less successful, with the large Spirito forces proving a bit unwieldy and washy for this intimate setting. The one outright clinker was Nearer My God to Thee in which James Stevens’ hectically contrapuntalarrangement diluted the simple dedication of the celebrated hymn.

Both choirs joined for the finale of Randall Stroope’s Caritas et Amore, which moves from a monastic opening for male singers to a warmly affectionate outpouring.

Ferris Chorale sing Arvo Part

Reviewed by John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune, 3/13/16

Ferris Chorale sings Arvo Part

Were he alive today, Bach surely would have appreciated the deeply held religious beliefs of Arvo Part (Eastern Orthodox, in the case of the Estonian-born composer) and the music that enshrines them. Part's 80th birthday season has been observed by several local choral groups, including, in recent months, the Chicago Chorale and Bella Voce, and on Saturday night at Mount Carmel Church in the city's Lakeview neighborhood, the William Ferris Chorale lent its massed voices to the Part celebration.

The centerpiece of director Paul French's program was Part's "Berliner Messe" (Berlin Mass), written for the 1990 Berlin German Catholic Days festival. The music was intended to be sung liturgically during Pentecost and adheres to the quiet and devout dignity of Part's spare, neo-medieval manner, but in a less ascetic style than his earlier works.

The six-movement version for chorus and organ accompaniment made a wondrous effect, the music's sonorities wafting from the choir loft to timeless effect in the resonant church acoustics.

The Ferris Chorale has made enormous strides under French's direction, and the present incarnation is a more versatile, more technically and musically secure, more finely disciplined choral body than ever. It proved as much in its imaginatively chosen survey of familiar and unfamiliar Gallic choral pieces by Francis Poulenc, Jean Langlais and Pierre Villette, including Poulenc's ravishing "Prayers of St. Anthony" with its intriguing chromaticism. The care with which the chorale members matched pitches in these lovely and colorful works was no less exact than in their singing of the Part mass.

The chorale has made supporting the coming generation of choral singers part of its mission, and in several brief American pieces it was gratifying to hear French's group performing shoulder to shoulder with the young Spirito! Bravura chorus, which is made up of 76 female high school students under the direction of Molly Lindberg. Whether singing on their own or with the Ferris contingent, they made a splendid showing.

John von Rhein is a Tribune critic.

Twitter @jvonrhein

Copyright © 2016, Chicago Tribune



William Ferris Chorale named in The Top Ten Performances of 2015

Excerpted from an article by Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review, 12/23/2015

3. William Ferris Chorale: Requiem masses by Pizzetti and Somma

The William Ferris Chorale performs just a handful of concerts every year but under music director Paul French, the programming and performances are invariably of the highest order. In February, French led the Chorale in a pair of early 20th-century requiems by two little-known Italian composers, Ildebrando Pizzetti and Bonaventura Somma. Coming just days after the death of John Vorrasi, the concert served as an apt memorial to the Chorale’s cofounder, and French and his singers provided glowing and deeply felt advocacy to these beautiful, neglected works.

Ferris Chorale Soars

Reviewed by John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune, 3/2/2015

One of Pizzetti's finest masterpieces for unaccompanied chorus, the 1922 "Messa da Requiem," was one of two sorely neglected Italian requiems from the early 20th century that made up the fascinating program presented by the William Ferris Chorale on Saturday at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood.

Ferris Chorale gives glowing expression to two Italian rarities

Reviewed by Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review, 3/1/2015

When the William Ferris Chorale scheduled a pair of Italian requiems for concerts this weekend, they had no way of knowing how apt the music would prove to be.

John Vorrasi, cofounder, artistic director, and longtime guiding light of the Chicago chorus, died last Monday after a three-year battle with leukemia. Ironically Ferris, Vorrasi’s longtime partner, himself suffered a fatal heart attack in 2000 when conducting a rehearsal of the Verdi Requiem.

....Music director Paul French led a well prepared, glowing, quite beautiful performance that made one wonder how such attractive and well crafted music has gone largely forgotten.

Ferris Chorale presents the American premiere of Grayston Ives’ powerful Requiem

Reviewed by Dennis Polkow, Chicago Classical Review, 2/27/2013

Two years in the making, the William Ferris Chorale’s “Sacred & Profane: Music of Grayston Ives” was a concert program devoted entirely to compositions and arrangements of the British singer and choral director, including the American premiere of his Requiem.

Ferris Chorale wraps its 40th season with a grand tribute to its founder

Ferris Chorale wraps its 40th season with a grand tribute to its founder

Reviewed by Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review, 4/29/2012

The William Ferris Chorale is closing its 40th anniversary season this weekend with a program that looks back at its rich past and its founder, director and longtime guiding light, William Ferris.

Directed by music director Paul French Saturday night at the Chorale’s current home at the Madonna della Strada Chapel at Loyola University, the singers provided consistently refined and inspired vocalism in a wide-ranging evening.

Ferris Chorale provides fine advocacy for Jackson “Requiem”

Reviewed by Dennis Polkow, Chicago Classical Review, 3/11/2012

The William Ferris Chorale continued its 40th anniversary season Saturday night at Loyola University’s Madonna della Strada Chapel with a program called “Comfort and Consolation” that spotlighted a cappella choral settings related to loss, death, dying and grieving. 

The centerpiece of the program was the local premiere of Gabriel Jackson’s Requiem, which took up the second half of the program. The 2008 work juxtaposes some of the Latin texts of the Roman Catholic Missa pro defunctis that has fascinated composers from Mozart to Penderecki with a multicultural assemblage of poetry more about dying than death—i.e., attitudes that one hopes to achieve, passing away peacefully and without regret.