On June 22, Baroque Artists of Champaign-Urbana (BACH), led by Chester Alwes, gave a concert of sacred French music in the Episcopal Chapel of St. John the Divine on the University of Illinois campus.
What was most striking about this concert was the positioning of the choir and audience.
As you entered the chapel the audience was seated along the left wall, and the chorus was seated along the right wall.
I was seated about 3 feet from the podium on which Alwes conducted, and I was about 6 feet from organist Stephen Buzard, seated at the organ console.
In the choral works, I could distinguish with exact clarity the polyphonic intermingling of voices, and in the organ work I was fascinated by how much of the music was produced by Buzard's feet.
Stephen Buzard is the son of organ builder John-Paul Buzard. Stephen holds a master's degree from the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University, and he is assistant organist of St. Thomas Church in New York.
The concert began with Buzard playing Maurice Durufl's "Prelude and Fugue on the name of Alain." Durufle lived from 1902 to '86 and published only 14 works. This organ piece is his homage to the gifted organist and compser Jehan Alain, who was born in 1911 an dlost his life on June 20, 1940, in the battle for France in the WWII.
Durufle derived the musical note motif "ADAAF" from Alain's name, and also quoted Alain's most famous organ work's "Litanies" (1937).
This prelude of Durufle's is full of changing moods and rhythms, and Buzard, with admirable sensitivity, brought out the inventive facets of Durufle's mastery of the organ. In the more conventional Fugue, Buzard drew from his instrument splendid power and variety of voices. The applause for Buzard was strong and long.
The first choral piece of the concert was "Cantique of Jean Racine," an early work from Gabriel Faure's long life (1845-1924). This "Cantique," written in Faure's 20th year, is gentle and melodious, and the BACH chorus under Alwes brought out the warmth and gently devotional mood of the piece. Durufle's masterpiece was his "Requiem" (1947). In its relative gentleness, and mostly consoling moods, it has been compared to Faure's Requiem (1887-1900). Both works leave out the "Dies Irae" ("Day of Wrath") section of the Latin Requiem Mass.
Critics have spoken about Durufle's skill in combining Gregorian Chant, Renaissance counterpoint and the modern harmony of Faure and Debussy into this "Requiem." The result is that rarity, a work steeped in tradition which yet seems new.
Gentle this work may seem, but it has its powerful and dramatic passages, and Alwes and the BACH chorus did a splendid job in ranging from a soothing blending of vocal lines to a thundering level of passionate singing.
With the chorus placed a dozen or so feet away, no one could complain about lack of presence or physical impact in this performance! Indeed, "overwhelming" is the word I am looking for. The solo passages of this work were sung expertly and with reverential tone by the mezzo-soprano, Christina Boerger, and baritone, Heath Morber. Stephen Buzard at the organ lent fine support to Durufle's harmonic structure. I counted in the chorus three Buzards, members of this very musical family. The conclusion of the Durufle "Requiem" was a magical soft fading away into silence, leaving the audience spellbound. Then, Alwes indicated that the piece was indeed over, and thunderous applause followed.
There is somethng new on the Early Music scene here in the twin cities.
Christopher Holman, a familiar performer who has often appeared at BACH concerts, is starting the "Urbana Bach Cantatas Project," with a choir of professional singers and instrumentalists, playing on period instruments. The performances are at 5 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church of Urbana, 602 W. Green St., and are free.
The first concert was June 29. The second concert will be on July 13 and offer Bach's Cantata No. 199, "My heart swims in blood," and will feature soprano Alexandra Nowakowski. The third and final concert, on July 27, will present Bach's Cantata No. 29, "We thank you, God, we thank you."
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.