Reviewed by Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review, 12/10/2012
After notching its 40th anniversary season last year, the William Ferris Chorale entered a new era Saturday night.
There have been several changes in recent years. In addition to a move from the Chorale’s longtime base at Mount Carmel Church to its current imposing home at Loyola’s Madonna della Strada Chapel, literally on the blustery shore of Lake Michigan, this season is marking even more of a difference. Chorale cofounder and longtime executive director John Vorrasi is retiring from the ensemble’s management though he will still advise music director Paul French in his continuing role as artistic director.
The Chorale is also exploring new repertoire in this 41st season with a program next April of favorite opera choruses, a far cry from the sacred music, contemporary works and choral cornerstones that have long made up the group’s foundation.
So too, the opening program of the Ferris Chorale’s fifth decade offered a distinctive retooling of its traditional Christmas program. Eschewing past favorites and seasonal chestnuts entirely, Paul French led the Ferris Chorale Saturday in an evening of rarely heard music that also included a commissioned world premiere by Lita Grier.
The program, entitled “Christmas Triptychs,” presented groupings with three works per set of largely unfamiliar works, which offered some hits and a few misses.
Among the former was the opening set of music of Russian and Ukrainian Christian composers whose music was long suppressed under the Soviet Union. Aleksandr Kastalsky’s joyful Verses before the Six Psalms No. 2 combines folk coloring with Palestrina-like leaps in the vocal line. Nikolai Kedrov’s Otche Nash is a rapt and spacious setting of the Lord’s Prayer, and Vasil Barvinskiy’s Oh, What a Wonder! offers a febrile and lovely arrangement of a Ukrainian folk carol. The Ferris Chorale was here at its finest, the two-dozen singers showing characteristic pure tone and fluently blended sonority under French’s attentive direction.
The Ferris Chorale has long provided advocacy for living composers and will devote its February program entirely to the music of Grayston Ives. Best known for his arrangements and original works written for the King’s Singers, the program was given a foretaste with a set of Ives’ music Saturday night.
The English composer’s largely tonal, populist style is about a 180-degree turn from William Matthias, another British composer whose thorny and astringent music was long championed by the Ferris Chorale. Ives’ Rise up, shepherd! is a rather whitebread melding of spiritual and traditional carols. Ives’ lyrical Sweet was the song proved pleasing enough and Susanni showed more adventurous writing for divided voices.
The Ferris Chorale gave the world premiere of Lita Grier’s Winter Songs Saturday, a work commissioned by French and the chorus. The first, “Winter Song,” set to a poem by Katherine Mansfield, depicts the harshness and mercurial weather of the season with edgy harmonies and loud and driving music for full chorus (“Rain and wind and wind and rain”) and powerful stratospheric passages for sopranos.
“Winter-time” by Robert Louis Stevenson offers a more diatonic respite, though here Grier’s aggressive textures seemed at odds with the intimate domesticity of the poetry. In the final song, set to Amy Lowell’s “A Winter Ride,” the men’s voices and women’s voices are set in contrapuntal alternation, ending in a burst of sleigh-riding exuberance.
Grier’s Winter Songs is an effective work and has its moments, though some of the choral textures are decidedly thick and lumbering and could use a lighter scoring touch (the poetry is not among the writers’ most deathless inspirations either). Still French and the Ferris Chorale delivered a well prepared, richly committed and enthusiastic sendoff for this premiere.
Other highlights of the program included a glowing set of music by Jacobus Gallus (aka Jacob Handl) with bracing use of antiphonal choirs in O magnum mysterium, an expressive Ave Mariaand a rhythmically joyous Hodie nobis coelorum rex. Adriana Kopecka provided a deeply felt solo in Leo Nester’s arrangement of I Wonder as I Wander, and Nester’s Arise and Shine, Jerusalem for choir and organ delivered a resplendent close to the evening.
In addition to his usual musicianly support of the choir, organist Thomas Weisflog offered a nimble and sterling solo set with Charpentier’s Three French Noels.