John Frayne: BACH chorus warms up cool summer night
Whatever soothsayer or almanac Chester Alwes consulted for the date of his summer concert by the Baroque Artists of Champaign-Urbana chorus, that source came up with a lovely, cool July night for a very pleasant program of choral music. Sunday's offerings ranged from Johann Sebastian Bach, on the 263rd anniversary of his death in 1750, through the intervening centuries to a contemporary work by Eric Whitacre (born 1970).
The "Bach and Beyond" concert took place in the Chapel of St. John the Divine Episcopal, on the University of Illinois campus, just across the street from the University Library.
This is a lovely house of worship, but it has a very strong echo effect. I sat as usual in the back row, and the explanatory words of Chet Alwes were garbled, and the contrapuntal lines of the Bach motet, "Sei nun wieder zufrieden" ("Now be content again"), BWV 21/9, as clearly sung by the BACH chorus were somewhat blurred by the resonance.
Adding to the sound problem, the air-conditioning vents in the floor behind me made me think that Bach's Cantata 205, about Aeolus, the god of winds, might have been more appropriate.
The less contrapuntal "Three Songs," Op. 42, of Johannes Brahms came through more clearly, and the singing of the chorus was refreshing and lovely in "Evening Serenade," "Vineta" and the "Dirge for Dar-Thula," attributed to the bard Ossian.
The name "Vineta" meant nothing to me, but I have since learned that this is the name of a mythical city at the southern coast of the Baltic Sea. If one judges from the number of songs, operas and novels about Vineta in German, the myth is well known there. The "Ossian" poem is likely the work of the 18th-century Scottish poet James Macpherson.
With the next work, Benjamin Britten's "Rejoice in the Lamb," came a big surprise. To get closer to the organist, Scott Montgomery, Chester Alwes marched his singers to the back of the church for the Britten piece. So I found myself 3 feet from Alwes, about 6 from the soloists, and very near the chorus.
This Britten piece, performed in honor of the composer's birth in 1913, is a marvelous setting of the poetic ramblings of Christopher Smart, a poet of the 18th century who spent some time in a mental institution. The chorus has many, many lines to deliver, and sitting where I was, I vividly understood every word.
Smart's most famous passage, "For I will consider my cat, Jeoffry ...," was sung with admirable clarity and feeling by soloist Katherine Buzard, and other solos were admirably delivered by Christopher Holman, countertenor, Stephen Boyer, tenor, and Donald Armstrong, bass. The intricate and sometimes ironic organ obbligatos were adroitly played by Scott Montgomery. The BACH chorus sang with gusto, and I now know just how loud they can sound!
Eric Whitacre wrote in 2001 an intriguing and at times uplifting piece called "Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine" on a text by Charles Anthony Silvestri. The words describe Leonardo da Vinci's desires to create a machine to allow humans to fly with the freedom of the birds. The English text is interspersed with key passages in Italian.
Although I had moved up closer to escape the wind blasts at the back, some of the text remained unclear to me.
The BACH chorus managed well with some of the echo effects as well as the singing, near the end, of rapid, single syllables. Solo passages were well sung by Katherine Buzard and Sarah Robinson, sopranos, and Daniel Borup, baritone. At more exalted passages, Scott Luedtke added sonic spice by playing the tambourine.
The concert ended with three numbers from Sergei Rachmaninoff's Russian liturgical masterpiece, "The All-Night Vigil" (known in America as "Vespers"). Sung in Russian, the middle selection was full of "Alleluias," which seem unchanged in all languages. The BACH chorus sang them beautifully, especially the last one, "Rejoice, o Virgin Theotokos, Mary, full of grace ..." After a long spell of applause, Alwes offered an encore of the last chorus, but the motion seemed to fail for lack of a second.
All in all, the overflow audience seemed to enjoy the concert very much, and I thank Alwes and his ensemble for so enlivening this musically slow summer season.
The next BACH concert, "Musica Italia," will be on Oct. 20, also in the St. John Chapel, and I intend to be better prepared to cope with the wind velocity.
John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.