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. The program is repeated this afternoonat Emmanuel Episcopal Church in La Grange.

As visually imposing as the soaring Loyola space is, the uber-resonant acoustic can be problematic. The opening work, Lee Hoiby’s At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners suffered the most with the John Donne text largely indecipherable. Poulenc’s Salve Regina fared better with the Latin text clearer and the radiant soprano tone enhanced by the chapel’s ecclesiastical glow.

Ferris, who died in 2000 at 63 from a massive heart attack while rehearsing Verdi’s Requiem, was a lifelong musical Anglophile, a then-unfashionable interest, which was reflected in works performed Saturday by Britten, Delius and Mathias.

Britten’s Jubilate Deo in C major for choir and organ was given a vital and committed performance that brought out both the contemplative and affirmative qualities. Venite Exultemus Domino was unpublished after Britten’s death and the Chorale gave the work its American premiere in 1983 with Sir Peter Pears, Britten’s partner and lifelong collaborator, in attendance. French drew a beautifully expressive and nuanced performance  from the choir.

Perhaps no composer enjoyed as close an association with the Ferris Chorale than William Mathias. The Welsh composer was represented by his As Truly as God is Our Father, an imposing setting for choir and organ. French skillfully paced the work with its alternating music for organ and voices, fluently moving from its spiky ominous opening bars to a powerful coda.

But it was Ferris who, aptly, was the composer most generously represented in this anniversary celebration. Twelve years after his death, the Chorale presented a Ferris world premiere Saturday with his Lines written in the bay of Lerici. A youthful work, written in 1960 at age 23, it displays striking confidence in its skillful handling of the long Shelley text with a conversational ebb and flow to the vocal lines. This belated premiere was realized with great sensitivity by French and his singers.

Ferris’s Festival Alleluias, a completion of sketches of his teacher Arthur Becker, is a setting for chorus and organ of Widor’s famous Toccata from his Organ Symphony No. 5. Though not one of Ferris’s most original works, it provided a suitably sonorous finale to the evening.

Yet Ferris was best represented by another celebratory work, his mighty Te Deum, which closed the first half.  Written in 1985 for the 150th anniversary of Chicago’s St. James Cathedral, the Te Deum is dedicated to Ferris’s most influential teacher Leo Sowerby, who was organist and choirmaster at St. James for three decades.

Launched with an angular trumpet fanfare from the organ loft, the work is characteristic in its collision of pungent harmonies with a joyous spirituality. Some of the solo singing proved variable Saturday, but, as French noted in his introduction, the Te Deum represents Ferris in all his various qualities with a tart harmonic punch, chromatic organ flourishes and exuberant religiosity.

In the Te Deum score Ferris encourages the audience to join the chorus in the closing passage–which was largely impossible due to the music being printed in the program in microbial type. But with the Chorale joined by the Loyola University Chamber Choir and the Loyola University Chorus, this rousing performance was put across with massive sonorous heft and  all the theatrical exaltation one could wish for, brass, timpani, organ and voices soaring in the final bars.

The Ferrris Chorale’s longtime artist-in-residence and collaborator Thomas Weisflog provided sturdy organ support throughout the evening as well as an effective solo in Sowerby’s engaging Comes Autumn Time.

The only disappointment of the evening was the absence of John Vorrasi. The Chorale’s cofounder and artistic director fell last week—ironically while leaving his doctor’s office–and broke his ankle. He is in the hospital and expected to make a full recovery, said box office manager Anthony DiSalvio.