Successful Ferko premiere sparks Ferris Chorale’s Christmas program

Reviewed by Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review, 12/7/15

Choral concerts abound in Chicago during the holiday season but few vocal ensembles have delivered such a discerning holiday musical mix as pleasing to the mind and ear for so long as the William Ferris Chorale.

Sunday afternoon at Loyola University’s Madonna della Strada Chapel, Paul French led the Chorale in “Strike the Harp and Join the Chorus,” a Christmas program artfully blending familiar carols with contemporary seasonal music.

Most interest centered on the Chicago premiere of Frank Ferko’s A Festival of Carols. Ferko, a former Chicago resident, is among our finest living choral composers, most acclaimed for his extraordinary and deeply affecting Stabat Mater, premiered locally and recorded by Bella Voce (when still called His Majesties Clerkes).

A Festival of Carols, scored for chorus and harp, is lighter in expression but displays the originality and melodic inspiration of Ferko’s best work. It also shows the composer’s taste at choosing texts, which include Christmas poems by Longfellow, Robert Lowry, John Work, Phillips Brooks, Abner Cobb and Longfellow.

Ferko has created a suite of five carol settings, all set to his own new music, spiced by subtle harp accompaniment. It’s a testament to Ferko’s skill that several of the settings have an indelible simplicity and yet a sense of familiarity that make them feel like existing traditional carols.

“The Angel’s Song,”opens A Festival of Carols in an air of haunting mystery, the hushed, shifting harmonics and divided voices leading to sudden exultant soprano leaps, handled with aplomb by Carling FitzSimmons and Karen Nussbaum. The ensuing setting of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” lends immediate contrast with a fast and almost aggressive rejoicing with syncopated harp accompaniment.

“The Sky Can Still Remember” offers a rapt and lovely song, followed by “Do you Know the Song That the Angels Sang?” This simple folklike carol with delicate harp accompaniment is the heart of the work, growing from a restrained opening into a lush, richly harmonized setting with sopranos set soaring in Ferko’s characteristic style. A Festival of Carols concludes with the charming “Christmas Bells,” which alternates Latin and English texts in an indelible manner, rounding off the suite with a joyous and resounding coda.

One could hardly imagine better advocacy for this Chicago premiere. Music director French led the 24-voice chorus in a polished, scrupulously prepared performance, beautifully balanced with fine clarity of words and articulation and impeccable intonation. Keryn Wouden’s nimble and expressive playing in the important harp role was on the same high level as the singing.

In addition to providing superb instrumental support for several selections, the young harpist was in the solo spotlight for Marcel Samuel-Rousseau’s Variations Pastorales sur un Vieux Noel. Wouden brought out the bucolic charm of the 15th-century French carol’s theme as well as the contrasting lyric tenderness and subtle virtuosity of the ensuing variations, rendered with a delicate shading of expression and dynamics.

The program showed French’s skill in deftly balancing the modern and traditional, with several intriguing discoveries among the seasonal chestnuts.

Among the former was William Hawley’s Alleluia, Dies Sanctificatus, a striking blend of monastic polyphony and luxurious choral writing, and Sister Edith Scholl’s radiant arrangement of the French carol “D’ou Viense-Tu, Bergere?”

Two Ave Marias were also among the highlights. Franz Biebel’s beautiful setting–A Chanticleer evergreen–was given glowing advocacy, and the rising and falling lines of Pawel Lukaszewski’s gorgeous setting makes one want to hear more of this Polish composer’s music.

Several chorus members made the most of their opportunities in the spotlight. In a preview of the Chorale’s April program of Leo Nester’s music, alto Kathryn Duncan offered a graceful solo in Nestor’s lilting arrangement of the Appalachian carol, “Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head.” And Tracie Davis brought an affecting soulful expression to “Hush, My Babe,” arranged by Wayland Rogers, who was in the audience Sunday to lead the applause.

The Chorale’s founder was feted in the closing set with William Ferris’s elegant arrangement of the Spanish carol, “A la Nanita Nana.” Sir David Willcocks, who died in September at age 97, was a longtime friend of the Chorale who conducted the ensemble. Thus it seemed apt to send the audience out into the afternoon winter sun with a lively account of Willcocks’ celebratory and bibulous version of “Deck the Hall.”