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April 26, 2005

Going Out In Style

Chicago Tribune (IL):

For a small classical music organization in Chicago, 22 years could be considered a respectable lifespan. Even so, it seems unthinkable to be saying goodbye so soon to Bella Voce, one of the area's premier vocal ensembles. Last month the group announced it will disband following its spring concerts this weekend and next. Thus Bella Voce's valedictory program, directed by Anne Heider on Friday night at St. James Cathedral, was a bittersweet occasion, full of reminders of past musical glories.

Faced with Heider's imminent retirement, dwindling attendance and diminished funding, Bella Voce's board elected to call it quits. I don't agree with their decision but I can understand why it was made. Chicago is bursting with a lot more choral activity than when the group began in 1982, as His Majestie's Clerkes. Once Heider leaves, she will take much of the choir's support base with her.

For her swan song, Heider highlighted an important aspect of the 20-voice a cappella ensemble's artistic mission: its commitment to living American composers. Focal work of the program was the premiere of "Mar" (2005), commissioned from the Minnesota-based composer Janika Vandervelde. It shared the bill with earlier commissions by Chicagoans Gustavo Leone and Frank Ferko. A Garcia Lorca setting, "Mar" is an arresting, highly effective piece that crams a lot of nature-evocation in only 10 minutes of music. Working within diatonic tonal harmony, Vandervelde freshly imagines chords as open as the sky and as surging as the sea of Lorca's poem.

The high women's voices and low men's voices mirror each other as the ocean mirrors the heavens. Key poetic phrases are repeated as rhythmic ostinatos throughout the ensemble. The women's radiant calls of "Paradiso" ("paradise") are darkened by the male voices' dissonant "Perdido" ("lost"), which leaves the final cadence unresolved and ambiguous. The choral textures of Leone's "Art of Birds" (2000), based on poetry of Pablo Neruda, are ingeniously varied and colorful, replete with antiphonal birdcall-effects and interwoven speech, song and chant. Excerpts from Ferko's "Hildegard Motets" (1993) use a late 20th-Century harmonic idiom somewhere between Poulenc and Messiaen to conjure the radiant spirituality of the 12th-Century abbess-composer Hildegard of Bingen. This exquisitely crafted music reminds us there is plenty of good recent American choral music that is worthwhile to sing and accessible to audiences.

The rest of the program included Spanish Renaissance motets and other short pieces drawn from Bella Voce's eclectic repertory. The singing was very fine throughout. Polyphonic lines interlocked smoothly; pitches were carefully matched; each section blended securely within itself as well as within the ensemble. Heider and her charges drew a heartfelt reception from the small but attentive audience. Bella Voce--beautiful voices indeed--will be sorely missed.

Posted by acapnews at April 26, 2005 12:11 AM