Lyricism, joy flower in Ferris Chorale presentation

Reviewed by John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune, 5/5/2014

Chicago's William Ferris Chorale has built its reputation around regularly championing the choral works of living composers. It's a tradition that dates from the group's founding by its namesake composer and conductor 43 years ago. The flame is being kept alive, with admirable professional polish, under music director Paul French.

Proof of that was "The Secret Language of Flowers," an attractive program of mid- to late-20th-century works celebrating the arrival of springtime flora, heard Saturday night at Madonna della Strada Chapel at Loyola University Chicago. The concert was built around two of the leading lights of American choral composition, Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre, with representative works by two masters of an earlier generation, Benjamin Britten and Vincent Persichetti, rounding out the agenda. Poetry readings by Chicago actress Marie Goodkin lent continuity and context.

The chorale first presented Persichetti's "Flower Songs" in 1985 as part of a 70th birthday tribute to the distinguished American composer, who died two years later. The seven e.e. cummings poems ostensibly celebrate flowers but actually delve into darker realms, including adultery, jealousy and death. Persichetti's inspired settings, for chorus and organ, trace the subliminal emotional states with great craft, subtlety and expressive power.

French stationed his choristers and organist Thomas Weisflog in the chapel's choir loft for the cycle, an acoustically advantageous location from which the performers could project the score's dancing rhythms, shifting meters and other technically tricky aspects.

The remaining performances, delivered from the altar area, proved less effective, not because they were any less thoroughly prepared or skillfully presented, but because the very resonant acoustics blurred lines with sometimes distracting echoes.

Even with texts rendered less distinctly, the ravishing lyricism and deep sincerity of feeling that mark Lauridsen's "Les Chansons des Roses," a cycle set to French poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, came across vividly enough. It's not for nothing that Lauridsen remains today's most frequently performed American choral composer: His music feels at once contemporary and timeless, pleasing to ear and mind, and eminently singable.

Whitacre, whose popularity rivals that of Lauridsen, was represented by two of his "Three Flower Songs," exquisite miniatures rife with the sensuously beautiful harmonic suspensions that have become his trademark.

Britten's more subtle -- more English, if you will -- "Five Flower Songs" (1950) made an effective contrast with the lusher and more direct Whitacre pieces. These, too, drew responsive readings from French's 24-voice chorus, whose quality of blend, intonation and ensemble left little to be desired.