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.       

The opening is the plainchant Introit that is used as a cantus firmus for harmony spinning out of it with fragments of repeating voices building into an impressive dynamic and harmonic climax on Exaudi (“hear” my prayer). Jackson skips the Kyrie and moves to the Gradual which seamlessly gives way to a poem comparing autumn and death by 16th century Japanese poet Baja Ujimasa.  From there the work skips the terrifying Dies Irae — which was eliminated by Vatican II in any case — as well as the Offertory and jumps to the Sanctus and the Benedictus, the only texts from the ordinary of the Requiem Mass included.

The Sanctus is the most imaginative setting of the work: quite rhythmic and effectively emulating the pealing of church bells with the syllables of the text, the section having an almost Swingle Singers vitality. The Sanctus gives way to death poetry by Walt Whitman that forms an effective musical climax before a text by Indian-Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. The poetry talks of finding a peaceful heart on one’s deathbed, with music that centers on harmonic consonance straying into slight dissonances with conflicted thoughts.

Jackson also dispenses with the Pie Jesu, Libera Me and the Agnus Dei. The finale of the work instead has the chorus singing a delicate setting of the Communion text Lux Aeterna while a spoken text is read by a chorister from 18th-century Native American Mohican Chief Aupumut that ironically asks us to sing our own “death song, and die like a hero going home.” It is a compelling text, to be sure, but to have it spoken rather than sung jarringly comes off as not only ineffectively preachy, but as a copoutas if Jackson could not devise an interesting way to set it musically.   

For all of its exquisite vocal effects and other attributes and despite the superb performance level, such an anticlimactic ending taken with so many missing sections of the Requiem Mass itself made the work feel incomplete or like a work in progress rather than a satisfying whole. 

The shorter works that opened the concert included a powerful performance of Allegri’s Misererewith four choristers in the organ loft antiphonally responding to the chorus at the front of the church.

Also heard were settings by William Walton, Randall Thompson, Ned Rorem, Samuel Barber, Gian Carlo Menotti and two pieces by the Chorale’s music director, Paul French.

Barber’s The Virgin Martyrs made a particularly splendid timbral contrast, written as it was for all female voices and exploiting those possibilities in fascinating ways with the voices often seeming to linger effortlessly in space with truly exquisite singing.      

It is a real tribute to French’s talent as a composer that his two settings could stand so well in the company of the other works on the program. His Epitaph, written for the loss of an infant daughter, creates a choral staircase, as it were, between humanity and divinity while his setting of Psalm 121 employs a similar effect with voices soaring heavenward.