Lyric Opera Chorus rare all-choral concert brimming with glorious sounds

SHARE Lyric Opera Chorus rare all-choral concert brimming with glorious sounds

BY ANDREW PATNER | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA

Sixty years from its launch, the Lyric Opera of Chicago Chorus gave its second public all-choral concert Friday night. And a very good one at that.

And have no worries that you might have to wait another six decades to hear 48 members of this much-admired ensemble in a concert setting again. The program presented Friday at Fourth Presbyterian Church on North Michigan Avenue will be repeated the afternoon of Nov. 22 at another neo-Gothic house of worship, Alice Millar Chapel on Northwestern University’s Evanston Campus.

Former Lyric chorus master Donald Nally devised the first stand-alone concert by the group six years ago, a wonderful offering of sophisticated choral writing, including the contemporary works that were his chief interest and led him to leave the post and the opera world for choral teaching and direction in 2011. The 2008 concert, offered then only to subscribers, seemed a hit but had no successor.

Now, with the almost 3-D range of community, educational, experimental and off-site activities that the company’s general director Anthony Freud and his colleagues have developed as “Lyric Unlimited,” strong systems for producing and marketing such beyond-season events are in place, tickets were sold to the public and Fourth Pres was filled to its 1,000-plus capacity.

Settling in as chorus master at the start of his second season, Australian Michael Black was both conductor and narrator of the evening, making clear just how rare professional opera chorus slots are in the U.S. — he cited 180 positions, total — and how different the repertoire of such singers is from orchestra, church or strictly choral groups. Everything on this program of 15 selections came from opera, almost all in Italian, or in the case of the three from “Die Fledermaus,” “Carousel” and “Candide,” operetta or musical theater, in German and English.

The pieces ranged from the very big — Verdi’s Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, “Va pensiero,” from “Nabucco” and the “Te Deum” scene from Puccini’s “Tosca” — to the ethereal “Humming Chorus” from the latter’s “Madama Butterfly” (cleverly done to open the second half without announcement and with the 24 women stationed in the loft at the back of the sanctuary, behind the audience). Jolly music from “Carmen” side led up against Verdi mourning cries, and was drawn from three centuries. With no orchestra, assistant chorus master Jerad Mosbey provided all accompaniment from a piano placed stage right. This had its limitations when standing for both orchestra and organ as in “Tosca” and perhaps at least an anvil could have been added for the “Anvil Chorus” from Verdi’s normally ringing “Il trovatore.”

But the absence of orchestra, combined Mosbey’s sensitive skill and the live, almost magnifying, acoustics of Fourth Pres, let the Chorus shine and allowed the audience to see and hear presentations that, as Black reminded us, are usually shrouded in darkness, far from our seats, covered in costumes and inside much larger and and longer works.

Black has a self-deprecating charm and did an excellent job underscoring the preparation it takes to become a chorister — a job “nobody prepares for except by trying to become a soloist.” The work of an opera chorister is an especially tough commitment with “six months a year sitting in a room with one conductor, studying and rehearsing” and “having to dress and undress in front of your co-workers several times a day.” Some of this explains the staying power and professional longevity of the members of this, the most mature of the city’s three major choruses, the other two being those of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Grant Park Music Festival.

The Act One men’s chorus from Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” revealed the delicacy and poignancy this group possesses with moving and idiomatic solos by Harold “Hoss” Brock” and Jeffrey W. Taylor as the first and second prisoner. Five strong soloists led a lilting “Bruederlein” from Johann Strauss Jr.’s “Fledermaus.” Mezzo Marianna Kulikova matched the strength of her collected colleagues as Santuzza in the stirring Easter Hymn from Mascagni’s “Cavallleria rusticana.” And baritone Kennety Nichols was a tough, obsessed Scarpia in the “Tosca” scene.

Black favored some fast tempos. Riccardo Muti, Verdi’s leading interpreter today, has spoiled many Chicago ears for some of the great 19th century Italian choruses. And several of his comments indicated that he doesn’t (yet?) feel fully at home with Gershwin, Bernstein or Rodgers & Hammerstein. That said, R&H’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was as repetitive a would-be tearjerker as it always is, with alto Yvette Smith a caring Nettie Fowler. And the “Make Our Garden Grow” finale from Bernstein’s “Candide” was spine-tinglingly perfect with no gimmickry, clear-voiced soloists and a controlled massing of unamplified voices that you cannot find in the theater.

A lively unannounced “Brindisi” from Verdi’s “La traviata” served as an encore with tenor John J. Concepcion giving his merry all leading the toast.

The Chorus sings with the rest of Lyric Opera all season at the Civic Opera House (20 N Wacker) beginning Sept. 27.

NOTE: The Alice Millar Chapel is located at 1870 Sheridan Rd., Evanston

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