Bella Voce in concert: Visceral and reverent Bach and Pärt

Interior of Chicago's St. Clement Church. (Via Wikipedia)

CHICAGO, Oct. 8, 2015 − Conductor Andrew Lewis seems to have a certain knack for molding the sparse yet arresting musical landscapes in the music of Arvo Pärt. Coaxing forth the mystical undertones underpinning the famed Estonian’s sonic contemplations, Lewis’s Bella Voce choir showed itself to be well prepared to perform a music that is often far more difficult to sing than the transparent textures may indicate. In effectively pairing this work with a varied program containing J.S. Bach’s seminal music, they once again demonstrated why they are becoming the most interesting choir in the Chicago area.

If the vocal writing for Pärt’s music can be difficult, so too can the instrumental writing provide its own unique challenges. The strings of Ars Antigua did their best to navigate the exposed and often surprising nature of Part’s writing; despite some occasional intonational issues, they provided a lovely foundation for Bella Voce’s polished voices.

In both mood and acoustics, St. Clement’s Church in Chicago is an almost perfect place to take in the music of Pärt. Despite some ill-conceived architectural mutilations to the interior of the Church – such as the removal of the lovely communion rails and high altar due to politically motivated liturgical misunderstanding – St. Clement’s retains much of its Byzantine-like artistic beauty and a unique acoustic quality. The reverb tail seems to last well past four seconds, with sound vanishing like fast-moving incense into the tall dome above. Maestro Lewis was able to use the space to great effect, allowing Part’s lovely voicings the time they needed to experience a full acoustic life.

Despite this long decay, the relatively close opposing walls of the church also lend an immediate reverberation as well. As a result, a certain “chorusing” effect takes place on exposed passages. To those in the back pews, every solo part from across the ensemble sounded as if it were doubled, giving additional mass to the ensemble as well as a haunting touch to Pärt’s already mysterious music.

If Lewis’s Pärt renditions are particularly apt, then his Bella Voce choir seems custom built to bring J.S. Bach to contemporary audiences with immediacy and verve. The concert began with an energetic rendition of “Der Herr denket an uns” (BWV 196.) Following the Pärt, Thomas Aláan’s solo singing in Bach’s relatively early “Widerstehe doch der Sünde” (BWV 54) was artful and moving, with Aláan contrasting the fast moving lines of the period with extended notes rendered with dynamic precision.

The concert concluded with Bach’s joyful “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” (BWV 22), where the choir and strings split into two antiphonal groups half facing each-other and half facing the audience. Seemingly urged on by the exuberant energy and musical swaying of sopranos Henriët Fourie Thompson and Kaitlin Foley (standing at the front corner of each group),the cantata was given to the audience with a joyful energy entirely authentic to the music.

The great music lover Pope Benedict XVI once said that truly great sacred masterworks can make temporary believers of dedicated performers. If this is truly the case, then Bella Voce’s renderings of Bach and Pärt – both immediately visceral and transcendently reverent – gave their audience an opportunity to become believers in the eternal as well.

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