The superb choir of Chicago Bella Voce closed its season on Sunday afternoon with a luminous program of works by English composers, entitled “Many are the Wonders”.
The other key element of this program – presented at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston – was the church organ, designed by legendary organ builder Ernest M. Skinner and performed on this occasion by the excellent local organist Stephen Buzard in his early days with the ensemble. The Opus 327 organ is a valuable specimen of Skinner’s work, preserved in remarkable condition through the efforts of St. Luke’s and the eponymous non-profit organization dedicated to its preservation. Sunday’s performance was one of many planned at the church to mark the 100th anniversary of its construction in October 2022.
The first half of the program ended with two works that tested the courage of this voice and organ duo. Elgar’s Give to the Lord, cast some initial doubts as the concert opened. Led by artistic director Andrew Lewis, the ensemble delivered the work’s ecclesiastical declarations with rich, full sound and seamless blending, but even the clearest articulation was obscured in the prodigious moments of the organ. powerful.
The second serve by Kenneth Leighton, struck a better balance between the two parties. In this staging of the evening hymns, the propulsive keyboard accompaniment provided ample rhythmic support without overpowering the choir.
Bella Voce’s program also paid homage to two masters of English polyphony in a pair of a capella works – liturgical stagings by Thomas Tallis and William Byrd paired with 21st-century compositions inspired by their Renaissance counterparts. .
Byrd’s Chant on the Easter Liturgy Ave verum corpus is standard choral fare, and Lewis directed the Bella Voce musicians with great care in a beautifully nuanced yet transparent reading. The no-frills performance was an ideal setup for Roderick Williams Ave verum corpus reinvented, which borrows aspects of Byrd’s composition and reworks them in a supremely haunting contemporary arrangement. Williams’ polytonal writing creates the aural effect of watercolors blooming on canvas, and the pristine tone and high intonation of the chorus rendered the prismatic harmonies of this revamped Byrd with utter clarity.
In the second half of the program, “Loquebantur variis linguis” by Thomas Tallis was paired with Ken Burton There are many wonders. The Bella Voce singers showed off their technical skills with brilliant sound and crisp articulation in Tallis’ motet, while Lewis painstakingly analyzed the work’s polyphony web, guiding the singers through the playful rhythms. Although perhaps the weaker of the two redesigned sets, Burton’s piece set the stage for the magnificent tenor Carl Alexander, whose voluminous solo declamations in the work’s only openings made the performance a highlight. .
Two pieces for solo organ highlighted the extraordinary talents of Stephen Buzard, organist and musical director of Saint-Jacques Cathedral. If that institution’s pedigree wasn’t impressive enough for Buzard’s abilities — his predecessors in the role include Leo Sowerby — Buzard’s performance on Sunday left no questions unanswered.
The William McKie Arrangement of William Walton Orb and Sceptera majestic coronation walk in the vein of Elgar Pump and circumstance, was the obvious crowd favourite, but the full extent of Buzard’s prowess was on display in Herbert Howell’s Rhapsody No. 3 in C-Sharp Minor. Composed overnight during an air raid on York in 1918, the centrepiece’s explosive angular harmonies and plunging acrobatics echo the violent circumstances of its wartime inspiration. Buzard displayed stellar technique and keyboard finesse throughout the rhapsody’s stunning contours; one could hardly imagine a better spokesperson both for this work and for the remarkable timbral abilities of Skinner’s magnificent instrument.
Other highlights of the show include Patrick Gowers Viri Galilaei, an evocative musical portrait of the Biblical Ascension. The organ’s strengths were extended by Michael Rees, who joined Buzard to play secondo in the piece’s virtuoso accompaniment, while Stephen Richardson lent his limpid baritone to sing the words of Jesus.
Completing the program was See that I am God, an exultant statement from British-Belizian composer Errollyn Wallen, who was among the audience at this concert. Commenting on his affection for the work in his closing remarks, Lewis – an eloquent and charismatic host throughout the afternoon proceedings – humbly noted, “I hope we can do him justice.” Which the singers of Bella Voce certainly did under Lewis’s skillful guidance. Wallen seemed to agree, joining the rest of the audience in a standing ovation.
Sunday’s strong performances bode well for Bella Voce’s 2022-23 season as well as Skinner’s centennial celebration of the instrument this fall. www.bellavoce.org
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