The a cappella choir His Majestie's Clerkes doesn't mark the holidays with merely the tried and true. Instead, sticking close to its mission of introducing seldom-performed chamber works, it usually proffers ingenious, erudite programs that can slake a musicologist's curiosity as well as delight casual concertgoers.
This year, seizing the opportunity of the first Christmas in the new century, the group's co-founder and conductor Anne Heider has dug deep to come up with two compositions written in a centennial cusp beginning with the year 1500. And those selections took up only the first half of a bountiful concert Sunday afternoon at the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago.
To start, a pair of English carols"Marvel not, Joseph" and "Hayl Mary, ful of grace"represented the dawn of the 16th Century, both attributed to anonymous. The 20-voice chorus brought forth their gentle if bland harmony and brightened the felicitous touches.
They lent gravitas to "Canite tuba," a somber work heavy on contrapuntal effects by the 17th Century Seville kapellmeister Francisco Guerrero. But they seemed to have more fun with the peasant drama of "Eso rigor e repente," whose author Gaspar Fernandes knew how to mimic African slaves' vernacular and disdain of white masters.
For the year 1700, Heider chose to contrast the august and Catholic Charpentier with the precocious and Lutheran Bach. The three excerpts from the French master's "O Antiphons" are stately and solemn dotted with ornamental turns, whereas the young German's chorale "Brich an, o schones Morgenlicht" is brief and plain though enlivened with a soaring spirit. The Clerkes helped us grasp why the directness in Bach's choral music has prevailed.
Canons from Haydn's "The Ten Commandments of Art" and Yankee composer Joseph Stephenson's derivative "Milford," both from 1800, and set to secular texts, gave the choir plenty of chances to show off their handling of fugal passages. And they did so with bravado.
The 1900 arrangement of a Brahms organ prelude using the Lutheran text "Es ist ein Ros'entsprungen" sounded like a drowsy dirge, and the Clerkes sputtered a bit negotiating its muddy chromatic morass. They were more nimble conveying the fin-de-siecle languor in Hugo Wolf's morbid and affecting "Resignation."
To make sure they fielded a new work that spotlights their versatility, the Clerkes awarded a commission to Columbia College professor Gustavo Leone. Leone's "Art of Birds" is so lively and spectacularly varied in texture and gestures it should be inducted into the choral repertoire right away in spite of the demands it makes on singers.
Three of its five short movements consist of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda's fanciful Latinate names for birds native to the Americas, which include "Californeca Brunnescens" and "Vultur Gryphus." Leone treats the syllables as a lexicon of soundsclucks, chirps, cacklesrushing through a series of them or lingering over a few. Some passages have an incantatory fervor and others are wittily drawn.
Under Heider's exacting guidance, the Clerkes gave performances distinguished by their hallmarks of exquisite vocal balance, precise diction and nuanced expressivity.
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