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.

Friday night’s concert at Mount Carmel Church—which was dedicated to B. Ellen Fisher, a longtime Chicago arts supporter—offered two a cappella requiems by Italian composers from the early 20th century, both works little known and rarely performed.

In fact, the Missa Pro Defunctis by Bonaventura Somma (1893-1960) was being heard in what may well have been its U.S. premiere, nearly a century after it was written by the 24-year-old composer in 1917.

Dedicated “to the pious memory of my Father and Mother,” Somma’s requiem is written on the grand scale, spanning 50 minutes and crafted in a richly luxuriant Late Romantic idiom, more warmly consolatory than terrifying.

Yet there is nothing simplistic about Somma’s vocal writing, which shows consistent ingenuity, imagination and melodic inspiration. The opening Introit is drop-dead gorgeous with its rich theme and waves of overlapping polyphony. The ensuing Kyrie is nearly as striking with its rising voices and luminous tone.

The Sanctus goes with great celebratory spirit, the voices divided into two antiphonal choruses. A solo tenor detaches, cantorial style, in the Offertory, and in the Lux Aeterna the soprano line rises high over a vocalise accompaniment. The concluding Libera me builds in ardour and contrapuntal complexity to a coda of glowing spiritual exaltation.

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.

Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968) succeeded Respighi at the Santa Cecilia Academy, where he was director from 1936-1958. Pizzetti was a critic, musicologist and prolific composer, his output encompassing a symphony, concertos for violin and cello, much chamber music, and twenty operas.

Though written around the same time as the Somma work, Pizzetti’s Missa di Requiem makes a sharp contrast. It’s about half as long as the Somma and often hearkens back to the Gregorian tradition yet is no less appealing in its directness of expression.

The opening Requiem section begins in an austere, chant-like section, later broadening into a madrigal-like five-part harmony. The supplicatory Kyrie calls for some stratospheric passages for high voices, handled in confident fashion by the Ferris sopranos.

Pizzetti’s Dies Irae sequence is more jaunty than terrifying, the shifty harmonics and melismatic writing, building to an eight-part polyphony. In the richly layered Sanctus, Pizzetti divides the voices into three choirs, the stacked triads artfully evoking Venetian music of the 16th century.

In the gentle Agnus Dei there is a high pure four-part harmony, the sopranos again soaring in the high-flying tessitura. The concluding Libera Me is unsettled and searching in style, yet culminates with a sense of glowing solace on the words “Requiem aeternam.”

At times, some clarity of words was lost in the tricky acoustic yet French’s direction was once again masterful—delineating great transparency between sections, drawing polished yet emotionally committed vocalism and allowing the myriad beauties of both works to shine forth gloriously in a concert that offered one of the highlights of the current music season.

Kudos to French for bringing these two beautiful works to Chicago audiences. Let’s hope that the Ferris Chorale makes this program the basis for its next recording.