Review: Chicago ensemble Bella Voce Camerata’s “Stabat Mater”

Bella Voce Camerata’s intriguing program beautifully paired Pergolisi’s “Stabat Mater” with contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s eponymous work.

Interior of Chicago's St. Clement Church.
Striking Byzantine interior of Chicago's St. Clement Church, site of recent Bella Voce Camerata "Stabat Mater" concert. (Image via Wikipedia)

CHICAGO, March 13, 2015 – There are those rare performances where location, atmosphere, and ensemble commitment to luminous works of music seem to create a transcendent experience that lodges itself in the memory, leaving a palpable mark that long outlives the dying of its final notes. Sunday night’s “Stabat Mater” performance by Chicago’s own Bella Voce – under the baton of artistic director Andrew Lewis – definitively found itself in such a special category.

The Bella Voce Camerata was recently formed out of its larger namesake choir, specifically for the purpose of performing works intended for a much smaller vocal ensemble. Their original performance in 2014 was of David Lang’s “The Little Match Girl Passion,” showing an admirable dedication to new music.

Their program on this particular evening joined two works sharing the concert’s title, “Stabat Mater,” composed by late Baroque composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi and modern master Arvo Pärt, respectively. While a literal age may lie between their compositions, these two works ultimately prove a natural and satisfying pair.

St. Clement’s Church in Chicago proved an ideal setting for these sacred works. Despite being the victim of a recent, ill-conceived and disastrous renovation (which included razing the church’s glorious old main altar), the traditional Byzantine frescoes and gentle golden hue of this still magnificent church seemed tailor-made to Arvo Pärt’s music in particular. The church has a stunning acoustic environment where sound hangs like incense, with the resultant tail seeming to swirl slowly upward and disappear into the high dome.

There were moments in Bella Voce’s performance of Arvo Pärt’s “Stabat Mater” when the air seemed to visibly shiver, so pregnant was the atmosphere with the spiritual gravitas of the composer’s intent. Set for soprano, counter-tenor and tenor, the work matches these three voices with violin, viola and cello.

Conductor Lewis coaxed a fine balance and a mighty sound from his capable sextet, giving a fine demonstration of the intent of Pärt’s “Tintinnabuli” compositional style.
The dedication of the performers was total, and the result was a pristine rendition of this deeply devout composer’s religious intent.

Soprano Henriët Fourie’s upper register shone beautifully within the ensemble, while countertenor Thomas Aláan simply stole the show with his unearthly round tone and singular power.

Tenor Matthew Dean also sang beautifully, providing a robust low end and tastefully restrained vibrato as a firm foundation for the trio.

Given the pious depth of the Pärt, the Pergolesi “Stabat Mater” provided a tasteful and colorful contrast to the preceding work. Set as a vocal duet with string quintet and portative organ, the small ensemble (playing on period instruments) was once again able to fill the considerable acoustic space.

While there were some minor intonation issues between the upper strings and balance problems with the organ, the performance nevertheless radiated the same level of love and commitment that was evident in their rendition of the Pärt.

Andrew Lewis has demonstrated himself an able custodian of this fine group of performers, and we can only hope for more such performances in the future. Perhaps some Górecki or Lukaszewski next time, Mr. Lewis? It would be a fitting match.

Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)

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