William Ferris Chorale
Paul French, conductor
In what are said to be all recordings premieres, the Chicago Classical Recording Foundation presents the excellent William Ferris Chorale under conductor Paul French in new works that show the centuries-old art of a capella choral music is far from dead – at least in Chicago. The featured works are Four Motets (1973) by Alan Hovhaness, Stabat Mater (2006) by Egon Cohen, Velum Templi (1998) by Paul Nicholson, Who Am I? (2007) by French himself, A King James Magnificat (2004) by Easley Blackwood, Scapulis Suis (1960) by Robert Kreutz, three pieces entitled Lyrica Sacra (1962) by William Ferris, Nunc Dimittis (2007) by William White, and Behold, My Servant (1973) by George Rochberg.
Rather than write an interminable review with a lot of technical terms that would bore both you and mef, I’ll just hit the high points. Hovhaness’ Motets are based on Biblical texts proclaiming the joy of trusting God and walking in His way. The first, “Blessed is the man” (Jeremiah 17:7) sets the tone for the others, which include “Help, Lord (Psalms 12), “Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? (Psalms 15) and “The fool hath said in his heart” (Psalms 15). Beautiful harmonization and adherence to tradition make these brief works memorable. Cohen’s Stabat Mater refurbished this medieval affirmation of faith describing Mary’s sorrows as she beheld the Crucifixion. This setting of the canticle expresses grief in a moving way by having some of the voice parts hum quietly or vocalize an expressive “Ah” as a backdrop and contrast to the noble simplicity of the verses. Nicholson’s setting of Velum Templi (The veil of the Temple was torn), one of the traditional canticles for Holy Week, effectively uses clashing harmonies and a notable forte to dramatize the Gospel accounts of the shaking of the Temple and the opening of the tombs after the Crucifixion.
French’s setting of “Who am I?” taken from the posthumous papers of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was killed by the Nazis, uses a plain declamatory style with all voices coming together at the end to present this remarkable affirmation of one’s personal faith in bold relief. Blackwood’s King James Magnificat, the joyous hymn of praise attributed to the Virgin Mary in the Gospel of Luke, casts each of the ten verses in a different key and uses soft and loud phrasing and chordal harmony to emphasize the meaning of the words beginning with “My soul doth Magnify the Lord.” The work ends in a satisfying way with an exalted setting of the words often used as a coda to the Magnificat: “Glory Be to the Father, Son, and holy Spirit.” Kreutz’ Scapulis Suis uses slowly unfolding harmonies and mid-level dynamics to emphasize the words of Psalm 91, translated “He shall cover thee with his wings.” Ferris’ Lyrica Sacra (Sacred Lyrics), a grouping of three Latin motets utilizing Psalm and Gospel verses, use a variety of phrasings, speeds and dynamics to convey the meanings of the texts, which translate “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood shall live in me, “”He who would follow me, let him deny himself,” and “As a lily is among thorns, so are you, my beloved” (Song of Solomon 2: 2).
Finally, we have White’s Nunc Dimittis (Now lettest Thou thy servant depart in peace), which tells the whole story of Simeon and his taking the infant Jesus in his arms in Luke 2: 25-35, not just the sentence beginning the old man’s declaration of joyous belief. White uses key, metre and tempo shifts to boldly convey the drama of the text. And Rochberg’s “Behold, Thy Servant,” commissioned by the Jewish Theological Seminary of New York, uses a fabric of echo effects between solo voices and the whole choir, hushed and loud tones, and chromatic and diatonic scales, to build an impressive climax to three affirmative texts from Isaiah that the composer prefaces significantly with the words of William Blake, “Ev’ry thing that lives is holy.” It concludes a program of testimony to faith that literally stretches cross the centuries.