Chicago is blessed with a rich assortment of choral groups. Aside from singers in the Chicago Symphony Chorus, there are celebrated church choirs, community choirs and university-based ensembles. This coming weekend offers a special opportunity to hear two of the city’s finest choirs: Chicago Chorale and Bella Voce. They are performing two of the repertoire’s outstanding works. The Chorale will sing Maurice Durufle’s Requiem while Bella Voce will offer Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, on that work’s 400th Anniversary.
I had the pleasure of sitting down recently with the music directors of both groups and learning more about their background, each ensemble’s history and performance style.
Chicago Chorale— This is a 60-member collection of amateur voices founded in 2001 and led by Bruce Tammen. The chorale, at first, consisted of 22 singers (predominantly Hyde Parkers) familiar with Tammen through his association at the University of Chicago from 1984-96 conducting the Rockefeller Chapel Choir, University Chorus and the Motet Choir.
Singers pass a rigorous audition for admission and must treat their association like a vocation. They are expected, without fail, to attend weekly rehearsals. And, unlike most chorale groups, including Bella Voce, they are not paid but, instead, pay yearly dues to support the group’s leader and season schedule expenses.
I first heard this superbly-trained group last November at the Monastery of the Holy Cross in Bridgeport and was astounded by the bell-like clarity of their singing. Tammen says his technique is to break words into sounds and aim for precise vowel-shaping of notes with perfect pitch as the crucial, ultimate goal.
Tammen agrees that his early training at Luther College in Minnesota and the Lutheran choir model informs his approach to sound and music training. “What I take from my Luther College background is the belief that you can take farmers and non-music majors and, with the right training, get remarkable results.”
The Chorale does not focus on a particular musical era such as Renaissance or Baroque but performs primarily sacred music from the 16th century to the present as well as what it terms “undiscovered masterpieces”. This weekend’s performance of Durufle’s “Requiem” (1947) is the first and most famous of the composer’s fourteen compositions. According to the concert’s program notes, it is a work “unique in its application of medieval melody (Gregorian chant) and modern orchestration.”
Durufle’s Requiem takes the rich tradition of the requiem “Mass for the Dead” begun in the Renaissance with later contributions by Mozart, Berlioz, Brahms and Verdi and matches it with the equally rich French organ tradition.
The Chorale is performing the orchestration for organ alone (one of three orchestrations the composer wrote). They will be joined by organist Thomas Weisflog, cellist Sophie Webber and mezzo-soprano Susan Payne O’Brien.
Tammen’s says his goal for the group, which marks its 10th season next year, is to “chip away at the personal and professional perception that the word ‘amateur’ means anything less (than top-quality).” I’d say they’ve achieved such a distinction.
The sole performance is Saturday, March 27th at St. Thomas the Apostle Church, 5472 S. Kimbark Avenue in Hyde Park at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, contact www.ChicagoChorale.org or buy tickets at Seminary Co-op Bookstore and 57th St. Books. Chicago Chorale can be heard “Live from WFMT”, April 26th at 8 p.m.
Bella Voce—The ensemble, considered Chicago’s leading professional chamber choir, consisting of 28 singers, was formed in 1982 by Rick Childress and was originally known as “His Majestie’s Clerkes”. It was led for many years by Anne Heider (Bruce Tammen once sang with Clerkes). Its current director is Andrew Lewis who also holds four other musical appointments in town, including the Elgin Choral Union and teaching at University of Illinois.
Lewis characterizes his group’s sound as sharing the clear, round sound of Lutheran college choirs but mixed with the “clarity and laser-like perfect pitch” of English Cathedral choirs. Expression, he says, is paramount with intonation as part of expression. Lewis, who sang with Heider, says his goal is to build on the earlier sound achieved by Heider but “making it more robust”.
The conductor is single-minded when it comes to who he admits into the choir. He insists that every member must be familiar with Renaissance and Baroque performance style. This makes his job of program preparation much easier.
Bella Voce nearly disbanded in 2005 when Heider stepped down. Lewis says the singers were devastated by the board’s decision to stop performing. Lewis and a small group of singers, he says, “staged a friendly coup of the Board” and offered to take responsibility for keeping the group going. The ensemble is once again gaining high critical praise and thriving through current tough times.
Lewis and Tammen both studied with famed choral conductors Helmut Rilling and Robert Shaw. Lewis is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he studied choral and orchestral conducting.
Vespers of 1610—Monteverdi’s work is regarded as revolutionary in marking the transition from the Renaissance style to that of the Baroque period. The enduring popularity of its beautiful melodies and harmonies through the ages is attributable, according to one writer, to its “blend of the splendid and the intimate, the sensual and the sublime.”
For Lewis, however, in preparing for this weekend’s performances, Monteverdi’s 146-page score is a musical puzzle requiring countless solutions by the conductor. Monteverdi gave no indication of orchestration for the voices in his score. In this regard, every performance of the Vespers in unique to each conductor’s choices as to intonation, when to stress a single voice for a passage or when to double the vocal parts.
To see how Lewis and Bella Voce solve Monteverdi’s puzzle, I urge you to head to Rockefeller Chapel on Sunday, March 28th or Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 East Randolph, on Monday, March 29th at 7:30. For tickets, go to either www.rockefeller.uchicago.edu or www.HarrisTheaterChicago.org.