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Reviews of past Bella Voce concerts:

 

Bella Voce opens 30th season with an encore of Ferko’s “Stabat Mater”

Chicago Classical Review,Mon Oct 15, 2012

Lawrence A. Johnson

On a frigid February night thirteen years ago, a new work was unveiled at a tiny church in Evanston by His Majestie’s Clerkes under the direction of Anne Heider.

The choir’s name has changed and Andrew Lewis is now at the helm. But it seemed wholly appropriate that Bella Voce should open its 30th anniversary season with an encore of Frank Ferko’s Stabat Mater, a rich and deeply moving work commissioned by Heider that was a highlight of her tenure leading the ensemble.

Sunday afternoon’s concert at Rockefeller Chapel in Hyde Park offered a reunion of sorts with Heider and Ferko on hand to discuss the commissioning of the work and its musical construction.

I covered the world premiere of Ferko’s Stabat Mater in 1999 for the Chicago Tribune and it was a revelation that choral music of such ambition, emotional depth and immediacy was still being written, not least by a composer resident in Chicago, as Ferko was at the time.

The traditional Latin text depicting Mary’s weeping at the cross of Jesus, is here interpolated with five secular settings that expand and magnify on the topic of mothers losing their children. Yet while the 55-minute Stabat Mater is complex in its construction and architecture, it is accessible in style, offering a wide variety of vocal textures and effects and moving from somber E minor into dissonant, atonal regions before returning to a consolatory final section and affirmative D major conclusion.

A soprano soloist is called upon for the interpolated secular settings. While Patrice Michaels sang with clear enunciation and projection, at times one would have liked a gentler style and more radiant and nuanced approach.

This is extraordinarily challenging music for choral singers, yet the Bella Voce members came through in an impressive and communicative performance, under Lewis’s scrupulous direction. The singers tackled the stratospheric soprano writing, the Ligeti-like clusters, and the wide expressive range of Ferko’s vast ambitious work with dedication and emotional resonance. Do try to catch Bella Voce’s final performance of this program in Evanston Oct. 20 if you are not acquainted with this remarkable work.

The afternoon began with William Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices. This concise, beautiful setting was never performed in public during Byrd’s lifetime, and the work served as a worthy prelude to the Ferko, both in its Catholic inspiration and a similar mosaic-like construction, built on short vocal motifs and saving the full choir for dramatic moments. At times one wanted a purer, more ethereal sound from the choir’s sopranos, but this was a polished, flowing performance with quite lovely glowing vocalism in the concluding Agnus Dei.

Note: Frank Ferko’s Stabat Mater was recorded by Anne Heider and His Majestie’s Clerkes shortly after the premiere performances and that recording is still available on the Cedille label.

Messiah

Splash Magazines, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2011

Sandra Schwartz

On Sunday evening, Nov. 20th,  the Fourth Presbyterian Church, located on Michigan Ave. across from the Johh Hancock building in Chicago, filled with the choral and instrumental classic of the season, Handel’s Messiah.   Alternating between the weaving of the Baroque melodies and the combined thrill of the unison chorus, the music cast its spell on the audience both in its sense of antiquity and the present thrill of experiencing it at that moment.   With texts from the Old and New Testaments, the alternation of major and minor keys highlights either the pathos or joy in the accompanying text. The Messiah is without question the most popular of Handel’s works and the most-performed choral work in the classical tradition.  Composed in London over a span of 24 days in 1741, it premiered in Dublin in 1742 and was first heard in London in 1743. 

Bella Voce, Chicago’s premier chamber choir and period instrument ensemble and the Callipygian Players joined together to perform Handel’s Messiah—all three parts—in this period-authentic production, the way Handel intended it to be performed. This was Chicago’s only complete period-instrument Messiah performed this season. 

Bella Voce, Chicago’s premiere professional chamber choir, is renowned for performing traditional and contemporary, sacred and secular choral music, which inspires and exhilarates its audiences.  It continues to honor the traditions that won this stellar choral group so many admirers and supporters over the years while also exploring new repertoire.

The Callipygian Players is an ensemble of Chicago's finest period-instrument musicians and singers under the leadership of director and Baroque violinist Martin Davids. The group presents innovative and exciting concerts of music from the Baroque era (approximately 1600-1750). Known for interesting programming, these concerts feature music of well-known composers as well as lesser-known masterpieces.

Andrew Lewis is artistic director of Bella Voce, music director of the Elgin Choral Union, founder and artistic director of The Janus Ensemble, a professional chamber orchestra specializing in Baroque and new music, choirmaster at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston, and is on the conducting faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is also artistic director emeritus of the Lutheran Choir of Chicago and formerly taught conducting at DePaul University.  He has appeared as a guest conductor with the Elgin Symphony Orchestra.  Lewis’ performances have been heard live on 98.7WFMT.

Martin Davids founded and directs the Callipygian Players, Chicago’s premier Baroque chamber music ensemble.  He is concertmaster of Bach Collegium of Ft. Wayne, Janus Ensemble, Reno Baroque Ensemble (NV), and the Bach Institute. He often gives master classes in performance practice and improvisation at many schools and universities including Northwestern.  He performs  on a beautiful Baropue violin by Ferdinando Alberti from 1750. 

Bella Voce Artistic Director Andrew Lewis explains, "Messiah has been a favorite of musicians and audiences since Handel's first performance of it in 1742. In fact, Handel performed it so often, adjusting the music to suit the musicians for almost every performance, that there are as many as ten distinct versions. We are thrilled to perform this great oratorio in its ideal, composite version, without cuts."

 

Album of the week

Awake the Dawn. Bella Voce, Andrew Lewis, director.

The a cappella works on this self-produced CD from the Chicago vocal ensemble Bella Voce reflect artistic director Andrew Lewis' deep affinity for contemporary choral music that resonates with the spiritual ethos of ancient music.

The high, unearthly voices of four Latin motets by Gabriel Jackson float like distant echoes from the vaulted ceiling of a Tudor cathedral. Two of Frank Ferko's exultant "Hildegard Motets" make one regret there was no room to include the complete set, while three luminous Eric Whitacre pieces present this most popular of modern choral composers at his most imaginative. Altogether a beautiful disc, urgently recommended.

jvonrhein@tribune.com

http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/music/ct-ent-1109-classical-black-20111109,0,7393954.column

Bella Voce gets nostalgic with contemporary choral works

Sun Oct 16, 2011

DENNIS POLKOW


Bella Voce performed its season-opening concert Saturday night at Rockefeller Chapel in Hyde Park.

During its 29 years, Bella Voce has had two names — it was founded as His Majestie’s Clerkes — three music directors, several significant Chicago premieres and even world premieres of works that the group had commissioned for itself. Ambitious plans like those appear to be in the past, but there is always the opportunity to revisit triumphs of yesteryear.

As such, it was great to see the group returning to former Chicago composer Frank Ferko’s The Hildegard Motets, written in 1993 for its tenth anniversary, even if only three of the work’s original eight movements were heard at Saturday evening’s season-opening concert at Rockefeller Chapel.

The most interesting of the three sections performed was O Verbum Patris which spotlighted countertenor Lon Ellenberger with the chorus fanning out from the soloist in the opening before the choral buildup to the climax of the piece and then a return to a solo-led ending. Balance was an issue as the countertenor should ideally almost be a detached, wayward voice from the chorus rather than a full-out soloist which in this case, also had little support from the tenors and basses.

It would have been preferable to perform the entire Ferko work and as a single entity rather than scattering three movements throughout the evening and minimizing its impact.  Given that the concert weighed in at ninety minutes including an intermission and informal remarks by music director Andrew Lewis who also conducted the program, there was certainly enough time.

Also heard were a handful of works by popular American choral composer Eric Whitacre, who has been receiving a lot of attention over his YouTube “virtual choir” videos over the last couple of years. All three pieces that Whitacre has posted in this manner, Lux Aurumque, Sleep and Water Night were performed.

The most interesting Whitacre work is his Lux Aurumque, which attempts to have a chorus actually exhibit the qualities of light through sound. Although the Bella Voce sopranos were a tad heavy-handed, the chorus as a whole indeed was able to sing softly yet brightly enough to suggest luminosity.

Rounding out the program were works of British choral composer Gabriel Jackson, who of the three composers represented on this program, came off as the most masterful —  not only in his knowledge and exploitation of sheer choral sonority, but his imaginative approch to bridging the gap between Renaissance and contemporary choral music.

Jackson’s Hymn to the Trinity (Honor, virus er potestas) which opened the program, spotlighted an ethereal approach to hyper-chromatic tonality which superbly manages to reflect both the stability and mystery of the Trinity that was given a stirring and nuanced performance by Bella Voce.

Likewise, Jackson’s Cecilia Virgo, which concluded the evening, offers the startling suggestion of a choral waterfall with its antiphonal effects and polyrhythms. The music presents an ethereal entropy that seems to be in danger of teetering over the edge, yet remains within a tightly controlled structure.

All of the repertoire heard on this program with the exception of O Verbum Patris is heard on Bella Voce’s new self-produced CD Awake the Dawn, the ensemble’s first release in seven years and its debut recording under Lewis.

 

Bella Voce mixes music of Tudors and today in stimulating program

Sun Oct 17, 2010

JACOB HILDNER

The a capella group Bella Voce, led by Andrew Lewis, opened its season last night at Rockefeller Chapel with a demanding and rewarding program of seldom-heard English Tudor music interspersed with works by Gabriel Jackson, a contemporary choral composer heavily influenced by the Tudors.  This is not the sort of concert that attracts big crowds, which is a shame, because the music is beautiful and stimulating, and was performed with accuracy and grace.

The program began fittingly with Jackson’s setting of William Blake’s poem To Morning, which gave dramatic polyphonic expression to the poet’s words: Awake the dawn that sleeps in Heaven; let light / Rise from the chambers of the East, and bring / The honey’d dew that cometh on waking day / O radiant morning ….

The stirring opening gave way to the rich extended meditation by Tudor composer John Browne, O Maria salvatoris.  The piece allowed the twenty-four piece ensemble to shine, as it alternated between solo duets and trios, building to multiple solo lines that were not only complex harmonically but rhythmically, with several two-against-three passages.  For all its complexity, the work came off as a cohesive whole under Lewis’s direction — celebratory but gentle and peaceful.

This was followed by another Jackson work, Cecilia Virgo, in which the group literally sang the praises of the patron saint of musicians and church music with a lovely chordal wash spiked with dramatic invocations of her name.

The Bella Voce singers rose to the challenge of the devilishly complex motet by the 16th century Scottish composer Robert Carver, O bone Jesu, and gave the last word of the first half to Jackson, with his Hymn to the Trinity, a celebratory work graced with syncopation and sudden modulations.

The second half featured two works by the great English Tudor composer Thomas Tallis, Loquebantur varlis linguis and Miserere nostri, which were performed radiantly by the group, as well as three additional Jackson numbers.

The final work on the program, Jackson’s beautiful setting of the Richard George Elliott poem Lux mortuorum, was a highlight.  Jackson cites the influence of Stravinsky in his work, which was evident in this piece, which featured sustained dissonances that gave voice to the poem’s haunting meditation upon the “Luminous souls of the dead.”  Just as the concert opened fittingly with a tribute to the dawn, it ended appropriately on an extended melisma on the word “dead” that did not want to end.

 

BELLA VOCE GIVES ELOQUENT VOICE TO TWO RARE REQUIEMS

Chicago Classical Review, October 19, 2009

Lawrence A. Johnson

Over its 27-year history, first as His Majestie’s Clerkes and currently as Bella Voce, the a cappella vocal ensemble has presented a significant amount of new works (Frank Ferko’s Stabat mater among them) and a discerning mix of familiar and overlooked repertory.

It’s too bad that the turnout was so sparse Saturday night for Bella Voce’s season opener at St. James Cathedral. Perhaps the program of two relatively little-known requiems was too adventurous for more conservative audience members.

 That’s unfortunate because under the skillful and sensitive direction of Andrew Lewis, the Bella Voce singers distinguished themselves, in glowing, responsive performances of music that deserve to be much better known. The good news is that the program will be repeated this weekend in River Forest and Evanston (see below) and you owe it to yourself to hear these fine performances.

 Cristobal de Morales became an unlikely crossover success a decade ago when the Hilliard Ensemble teamed up with jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek for a striking improvisational retooling of early chant and masses, spotlighting the Spanish composer’s monastic polyphony.

 Morales’ Missa pro defunctis of 1544 was one of the first masses “for the dead,” and remains one of the glories of the Renaissance. The stately slow-moving polyphony is crafted with the greatest skill and subtlety, voices interwoven masterfully. Like much church music of the period, the drama is more suggested than overt—the Dies irae sounds wholly untroubled and, perhaps, the alternation of high and low voices in the Sequentia becomes a bit repetitive.

 But this is extraordinarily beautiful music, distinctive in its multipart writing and division of voices. Lewis and his 17 singers provided a radiant, deeply moving account of Morales’ Missa with striking bell-like purity from the ensemble’s altos.

 Four centuries after Morales’ mass was published, Herbert Howells wrote his Requiem. Breaking a decade-long compositional silence, Howells’ work was a private expression of overwhelming grief in the wake of the death of his nine-year-old son in 1936. The Requiem wasn’t performed until 1981, forty-five years after its composition.

 Like Brahms, Howells mixes sacred and secular texts and at its finest the Requiem has extraordinary power and eloquence.  The two Requiem aeternam sections are most inspired, high voices set soaring in the first and radiating an otherworldly peace and serenity in the second. Lewis and his 22 singers gave Howells’ Requiem masterful advocacy with superb solo singing in a scrupulously blended and affecting performance.

 The Requiem was preceded by Howells’ Take Him Earth, for Cherishing. Written for a memorial service honoring President John  F. Kennedy, Howells’ work begins in simple homophonic fashion before erupting with thorny Matthias-like dissonance in the middle section.  Under Lewis’s’ direction, Bella Voce  gave rich and vehement expression to this music.

Bella Voce's class and style put it ahead of the choral pack

Chicago Tribune, April 30, 2009

JOHN von RHEIN

Andrew Lewis doesn't hold back when singing the praises of Bella Voce. Nor should he.

"I don't take credit for this, but I think this group of singers does the music chosen for it better than anyone in the city," says Lewis, a former member of Bella Voce who has directed the Chicago vocal ensemble since 2006. He goes on to laud his 24 singers for "the sense of responsibility and dedication" that imbues their performances with "the joy of making music at a very high level."

That much was readily apparent at a Bella Voce program I caught last weekend and which will be repeated this coming weekend in two suburban churches.

The program of unaccompanied English choral works showed how decisively Lewis, 36, has cast the group in his musical image since taking over the reins from Anne Heider, the longtime artistic director of the choir that began life in 1982 as His Majestie's Clerkes.

A fair amount of music was by Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose quintessentially English pastoralism Lewis surrounded with works by his forebears Gibbons, Byrd and Purcell and contemporaries Howells, Finzi and Britten. Tavener's "Funeral Ikos" suggested the extent to which newer British choral music has broadened its stylistic reach.

All this Bella Voce achieved with finely judged blend, intonation and ensemble, also a sensitivity to how music and poetry combine to produce something even greater. The vaulted nave of Chicago's St. James Cathedral surrounded the voices with an ethereal glow.

I can't think of another choral group in the area that could have brought off such a challenging program so expertly. Bella Voce means "beautiful voice" in Italian; clearly these singers don't take their name lightly.

Separated at Birth?

Chicago Tribune April 17, 2007

JOHN von RHEIN

Chicago's reputation as a teeming hive of choral performance got a further boost over the weekend when two of the city's leading vocal ensembles presented concerts.

Bella Voce, appearing Sunday at St. James Cathedral, 65 E. Huron St., paired the British composers Henry Purcell and Benjamin Britten. Chicago a cappella, performing Friday at the DePaul University Concert Hall, built its program around works by Argentinian composers. Both events were worth hearing and showed real artistic enterprise, although Bella Voce delivered the more polished performance.

Britten always claimed he learned how to set English texts by studying the music of Purcell, and choral music represents an important part of each man's output. The selections assembled by Bella Voce artistic director Andrew Lewis showed how much the two Britons, separated by more than 200 years, had in common.

Interestingly, sometimes it was Purcell who sounded like the "modern" innovator, and Britten the traditionalist. Certainly the former's "Funeral Sentences," its charged chromatic lines bumping into one another to create seething dissonances, sounded almost as radical as anything by Britten.

Dissonant harmonic clashes also heighten the expressive power of Britten's 1939 "A.M.D.G." ("Ad majorem Dei gloriam"), to religious poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins. The striking melodic leaps, intricately laced part-writing and other musical hurdles were met most handsomely by the 23-member chorus.

Lewis had his ensemble singing with the pure tone, clear vowels and firm blend of an English cathedral choir in such Purcell anthems as "I Was Glad," "Blow Up the Trumpet in Sion" and "Thou Knowest, Lord, the Secrets of Our Hearts." Paul Nicholson was the organist.

An erudite musician and a proficient choral director, he impresses as a worthy successor to the group's longtime artistic leader, Anne Heider.

Chicago a cappella's program included the Midwest premiere of "The Wanderer," a new work by New York-based Argentinian composer Ezequiel Vinao, as well as the Chicago premiere of a piece for unaccompanied chorus by Chicago Symphony resident composer Osvaldo Golijov. The chamber choir was expanded to a dozen singers for the weekend concerts under artistic director Jonathan Miller.

"The Wanderer," a co-commission with the San Francisco men's chorus Chanticleer, is set to an Anglo-Saxon text in the composer's own English translation. The bleak austerity of this music reflects the struggle of a lost soul from alienated despair to Christian salvation.

The six-part scoring employs drones and vocal ornaments, drawing on techniques borrowed from medieval and Renaissance polyphony. The sound, however, is thoroughly contemporary, as the intertwining vocal lines create restless fields of atonal ebb and flow. Textural variety is achieved by assigning the narration to single and multiple voices rising from the polyphonic thickets.

This is one of the most challenging pieces any chorus can perform, requiring rock-solid pitch and ensemble that sometimes eluded the group on Friday. One admired the earnest effort Miller's singers poured into the performance, but, at 30 grim and gray minutes, "The Wanderer" felt too long by half.

More accessible were Golijov's "Chorale of the Reef" and Ginastera's "Lamentations of Jeremiah." Much of the Golijov's exquisite effect derives from unison voices rapidly chanting the Pablo Neruda text, evoking ancient oceanic imagery through subtle deployment of pitch and rhythm.

 

PREVIEW: BELLA VOCE SPRING 2007

New City Chicago, April, 2007

DENNIS POLKOW

What a difference a couple of years can make. Bella Voce, the area’s premier chamber choir, was on the verge of disappearing due to money problems in the difficult post-9/11 arts-funding environment, and the subsequent retirement of its longtime music director Anne Heider looked like it might be the group’s swan song. A new Board resurrected Bella Voce and the appointment of new music director Andrew Lewis was announced last fall, with Lewis directing his first concerts as music director over Christmas. The energy, precision, balance and repertoire choices that Lewis brought to those spectacular performances made it easy to see why he was chosen as the new music director and the group itself not only sounded as glorious as it ever had, but it was obviously having a ball singing with him. Lewis is not only a first-class conductor, but was an engaging host for the proceedings, offering musical insights and anecdotes that were as entertaining as they were informative. These spring concerts feature Lewis conducting Bella Voce in a program juxtaposing pieces by seventeenth-century British composer Henry Purcell and twentieth-century British composer Benjamin Britten, with the premise that both were innovators of their respective times who managed to define a uniquely British sound while still incorporating a wide variety of international elements into their styles. The program includes Britten’s "Hymn to St. Cecilia," "Chorale After an Old French Carol" and "Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam," while Purcell anthems to be performed—all accompanied by organist Paul Nicholson—include "Blow Up the Trumpet in Zion," "O God, Thou Art My God," "Hear My Prayer, O Lord," "Man That is Born of a Woman," "Thou Knowest, Lord, the Secret of our Hearts," "Lord, How Long Wilt Thou be Angry?" and "I was Glad," composed for the coronation of King James II in 1685.

 

Sounds a lot like Christmas

Chicago Sun-Times December 4, 2006

DOROTHY ANDRIES

Only last year the a cappella ensemble Bella Voce was in danger of disappearing, due to the retirement of its longtime conductor and artistic director Anne Heider. But Saturday night the 20 voices of its members filled St. James Episcopal Cathedral, heralding Christmas with glorious song in the first of its holiday concerts.

Its new conductor Andrew Lewis, music director of the Elgin Choral Union, selected a program of contemporary composers who have departed in some way from the traditional Western Classical or Romantic style, generously laced with works from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. That continues Heider's tradition, though this appearance revealed Lewis to have even more idiosyncratic tastes.

The concert was bracketed by William Walton's carols, opening with "All This Time" and concluding with "What Cheer?" in acknowledgment of this 20th century British composer's skill in writing for voice.

Bella Voce sang two Latin hymns by Swedish composer Otto Olsson, also from the 20th century. The first, "Canticum Simeonis," had a monastic sound; soloist Blake Adams was the cantor and sang without vibrato, while chant portions were sung with the utmost delicacy. In the second, "Ave Maris Stella," the music poured out like honey, rich and shining, with soprano voices soaring above the altos, tenors and basses, like light through darkness.

Particularly powerful was "Lux Aurumque" by 36-year-old American composer Eric Whitaker. The off-center harmonies began quietly, growing in intensity, dawning on us like daybreak, then suddenly the sound dissolved. It did not fade, it actually disintegrated, then, miraculously, came together again.

Textured, almost disturbing dissonance also was found in "Bogoroditse Dyevo" by Alfred Schnittke, another 20th century composer. The sound was woolly and dense, arresting and beautiful.

It would not be Christmas without "O Magnum Mysterium," given in versions by Tomas Luis de Victoria from the 16th century and the living American composer Morten Lauridsen.

British composer John Rutter, whose music or arrangements seem to be in every Christmas concert these days, was represented by "I Wonder as I Wander" and "There is a Flower." Kathryn McClure was soloist in the first and Laura Lynch in the second, demonstrating the quality of the individual voices in this elegant ensemble.