French goes out on a high holiday note with William Ferris Chorale

Reviewed by Tim Sawyier, Chicago Classical Review, 12/12/2016

It was the end of an era Sunday afternoon when Paul French conducted his final concert as music director of the William Ferris Chorale at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Lakeview. French ended his eleven-year tenure at the helm of the ensemble on a high note, leading his singers in a holiday program titled “Christmas with the Chorale!” that was intelligently selected and expertly performed.

The performance opened with C. Hubert Parry’s inviting “Welcome Yule!” where the Chorale’s percussive accents set a festive tone. In two brief Renaissance motets—O beatum et sacrosanctum diem by Peter Philips and O magnum mysterium by Jacobus Gallus—the Chorale singers rendered each with a limpid collective resonance. 

R. L. Pearsall’s arrangement of “In Dulci Jubilo” had a gentle rocking quality and was excellently shaped. This was followed by a trio of works that constituted a tour of sixteenth-century polyphony: Johann Walther’s “Joseph, lieber Joseph mein,” Hans Leo Hassler’s “Dixit Maria ad Angelum,” and Praetorius’ “En natus est Emanuel,” where the Chorale again excelled with immaculate balance and warm sonorities.

The Chorale then turned to settings by its founder. Ferris’s “Hail Mary” had a forthright simplicity befitting the familiar prayer. “Lift Up Your Heads, O Mighty Gates” was both earnest and jubilant, and “Infant Holy, Infant Lovely” was delicately transparent. The Chorale provided fine advocacy for these settings, of which Ferris made over 400 that are still heard weekly at Our Lady of Mount Carmel services (where French will remain as music director).

The ensemble next featured four works from another repertoire they champion: music of lesser-known and local composers. Chad McCoy’s “Childing of a Maiden Bright” was emphatically modal, and the composer was on hand to receive enthusiastic applause. William Mathias’ “In Excelsis Gloria” was not terribly memorable, but pleasant enough to hear. French’s own take on the Ave Verum Corpus was written for a boys choir but sung Sunday by the WFC women, who made the setting’s close harmonies shimmer. Walton’s “What Cheer” was assertively syncopated and provided a strong period to the first half.

After intermission WFC board member and alto Kathleen Pacyna gave an update on the Chorale’s future, which sounded very much up in the air. She reiterated the Chorale’s mission of giving lesser known composers and unknown works a hearing, and asked audience members to “stay tuned” for information in the coming months. 

Two longer examples of William Ferris’s settings opened the second half. His eponymous Chorale gave husky treatment to his dark-hued Gentle Mary, and brought tenderness to Sleep, Holy Babe! A pair of offerings from Italian composer Licinio Refice followed, which were almost predictably the most operatic selections of the afternoon. Tu Scendi dalle Stelle was lilting and sincere, and Dormi, Non Piangere had a Verdian warmth.

French ceded the podium to Chorale soprano Carling FitzSimmons, who conducted two selections from Rorem’s Seven Motets for the Church Year. FitzSimmons helped to carry Rorem’s protracted phrases in “While All Things Were in Quiet Silence,” and gave “Before the Morning Star Begotten” a sunny treatment. With the Chorale soon to experience a void in artistic leadership, perhaps they need look no further than their own ranks.

Leo Sowerby was the organist and choir director at Chicago’s St. James Cathedral for 35 years, and was represented on the program by two works. “Lovely Infant” was the most dissonant of the afternoon’s selections and the Chorale emphasized the work’s chromaticism to great effect. “Love Came Down at Christmas” received an ardent reading.

Mount Carmel organist Kelly Dobbs Mickus gave Refice’s Puccini-like Berceuse a gentle treatment while French and the Chorale ascended to the choir rafters for two more Ferris settings. “Deep Down, Ye Heavens” was harmonically pungent and sung with gravitas by the WFC’s men. “Lullay, Jesu” was the only clunker of the afternoon–extended, wandering, and repetitious, it belonged somewhere other than near the end. 

The program closed with Stephen Chatman’s arrangement of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” which does a charming job dressing up the familiar melody. By way of an encore and as a farewell to French, the Chorale sang Peter Lutkin’s setting of “The Lord Bless You and Keep You,” which evoked an emotional response from Chorale members and many in the audience.

For information on future activities of the William Ferris Chorale, go to williamferrischorale.org