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December 4, 2006

Bella Voce shines

Chicago Sun-Times (IL):

Only last year the a cappella ensemble Bella Voce was in danger of disappearing, due to the retirement of its longtime conductor and artistic director Anne Heider. But Saturday night the 20 voices of its members filled St. James Episcopal Cathedral, heralding Christmas with glorious song in the first of its holiday concerts. Its new conductor Andrew Lewis, music director of the Elgin Choral Union, selected a program of contemporary composers who have departed in some way from the traditional Western Classical or Romantic style, generously laced with works from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. That continues Heider's tradition, though this appearance revealed Lewis to have even more idiosyncratic tastes.

The concert was bracketed by William Walton's carols, opening with "All This Time" and concluding with "What Cheer?" in acknowledgment of this 20th century British composer's skill in writing for voice. Bella Voce sang two Latin hymns by Swedish composer Otto Olsson, also from the 20th century. The first, "Canticum Simeonis," had a monastic sound; soloist Blake Adams was the cantor and sang without vibrato, while chant portions were sung with the utmost delicacy. In the second, "Ave Maris Stella," the music poured out like honey, rich and shining, with soprano voices soaring above the altos, tenors and basses, like light through darkness.

Particularly powerful was "Lux Aurumque" by 36-year-old American composer Eric Whitaker. The off-center harmonies began quietly, growing in intensity, dawning on us like daybreak, then suddenly the sound dissolved. It did not fade, it actually disintegrated, then, miraculously, came together again. Textured, almost disturbing dissonance also was found in "Bogoroditse Dyevo" by Alfred Schnittke, another 20th century composer. The sound was woolly and dense, arresting and beautiful.

It would not be Christmas without "O Magnum Mysterium," given in versions by Tomas Luis de Victoria from the 16th century and the living American composer Morten Lauridsen. British composer John Rutter, whose music or arrangements seem to be in every Christmas concert these days, was represented by "I Wonder as I Wander" and "There is a Flower." Kathryn McClure was soloist in the first and Laura Lynch in the second, demonstrating the quality of the individual voices in this elegant ensemble.

Posted by acapnews at December 4, 2006 10:53 PM