Ferris Chorale delivers atmospheric performance of Pärt’s “Berliner Messe”

Reviewed by Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review, 3/13/16

A year ago the William Ferris Chorale marked the spiritual season with a concert of rarely heard Requiem settings by Bonaventura Somma and Ildebrando Pizzetti, and those rewarding works provided a musical highlight of 2015.

Friday night at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, the Chorale offered “Heaven Bound,” a more varied and variable Lenten program but one that showed the Ferris ensemble continuing to perform at a new peak under music director Paul French.

The clear highlight of Friday’s eclectic lineup was Arvo Pärt’s Berliner Messe. Performed to mark the 80th birthday season of the Estonian composer, the Berlin Mass was written in 1990 for a German Catholic festival and remains one of Pärt’s most characteristic and frequently performed works.

French elected to perform the mass from the choir loft at the back of the church. That may have left the audience with no visuals but proved the right decision creatively. The high, distanced perspective provided an ideal atmospheric sound, with fine clarity to the Chorale voices and organ while bestowing an apt ecclesiastical glow.

The performance of Pärt’s mass by the Chorus was extraordinary–polished, sensitive and wholly idiomatic, with the sopranos delivering the cool, luminous sound produced by the finest Baltic choruses. French’s direction let this beautiful music unfold with an inevitability to Pärt’s spare, simple lines.

The Gloria was ardent and expressive while the male voices etched a monastic quality at the start of the Veni Sancte Spiritus, the singers conveying the folk-like element in the rising and falling lines. The somber meditation of the organ-led Santus conveyed the searching qualities and the sopranos were almost faultless in the high tessitura of the concluding Agnus Dei. Eric Budzynski contributed elegant and understated organ playing and this inspired performance of the Berliner Messe proved a highlight of the Pärt anniversary year.

The first half was devoted largely to French music, in which the Chorale was joined for some selections by the 76 girls of the Spirito! Bravura ensemble.

Francis Poulenc famously left his satiric boulevardier style for a more serious, spiritually centered music after being shaken by a friend’s death in a car accident in 1936.

Poulenc’s Litanies a la Vierge Noir was the first fruit of his return to the Catholic faith of his youth. The consolatory harmonies were given a soothing performance by the Chorale and the young women of the Spirito ensemble, French drawing impressively refined and well-blended singing from the combined groups.

Poulenc’s Quatre Petites Prieres de Saint Francois D’Assisse proved just as inspiring. These four prayers to St. Francis offer some of Poulenc’s most glorious vocal writing, and the men of the Ferris Chorale gave first-class advocacy with tenor Micah Dingler contributing an apt cantorial solo.

Three works by Pierre Vilette showed that his music deserves to be better known. The rich harmonies and expressive profile of the Hymne a la Vierge was especially striking and sensitively sung by the full Ferris Chorale. Soprano Henriet Fourie contributed an ethereal solo in Villete’sSalve Regina.

The set of inspirational settings performed by the Spirito singers varied in quality of material with Andrea Ramsey’s treacly Heaven Unfolding recalling unsought memories of Catechism assembly hall. Yet the teen singers showed impressive cohesion and polish under artistic director Molly Lindberg. The young chorus handled the soaring phrases of Pablo Casals’ Nigra Sum with confidence and brought agility and elan to the up-tempo gospel of Rollo Dilworth’s Make a Joyful Noise. Matthew Gemmill was a worthy piano accompanist.

The opening Lauda Jerusalem Dominum by Jean Langlais proved less successful, with the large Spirito forces proving a bit unwieldy and washy for this intimate setting. The one outright clinker was Nearer My God to Thee in which James Stevens’ hectically contrapuntalarrangement diluted the simple dedication of the celebrated hymn.

Both choirs joined for the finale of Randall Stroope’s Caritas et Amore, which moves from a monastic opening for male singers to a warmly affectionate outpouring.