at Ravinia, August 5

Choral singers work harder than soloists. They have to be exact in their entrances and cutoffs–holding the high note an extra beat will not garner extra applause, but it will get you into trouble. They also have to blend with the rest of their sections and with the chorus as a whole. They don’t have the option of choosing more comfortable notes because they’re a little bit tired, as solo singers sometimes do, and they have to pronounce words and attack notes as the chorusmaster says, not as they might think best. The individual chorister’s ego must be subjugated to the good of the whole, in matters of concert dress and performance; a fair amount of choral music consists primarily of providing a background for soloists. But the results of singing in a disciplined group are rewarding for the chorus members–and for the audience privileged to hear them. There’s something about massed voices that’s extremely affecting, similar to the effect of an orchestra over, say, a solo violin.

Yet it’s an underappreciated art, if the sparsely attended (though heavily papered) concert at Ravinia on Friday night is any indication. Those who did attend were privileged to hear the Chicago Symphony Chorus in outstanding form in three choral works set to religious texts: two Stabat Maters, by Verdi and Rossini, and Verdi’s Te Deum.

The short first half of the concert consisted of two of Verdi’s Quattro pezzi sacri (“Four Sacred Pieces”), the Stabat Mater and the Te Deum. Verdi is of course known primarily as an opera composer; even his famous Requiem is essentially a theatrical work, not something designed to be integrated into even the highest of funeral masses. But the pezzi sacri are different, the output of a more reflective man nearing the end of his life. Being works of thoughtfulness, they’re very low on bombast, concentrating instead on creating a highly spiritual atmosphere, particularly at the end of the Te Deum–a breathtaking prayer whose score Verdi requested be buried with him.

The words of the Te Deum Laudamus (“We praise thee, O God; we acknowledge thee to be the Lord / All the earth doth worship thee, the Father everlasting”) were written in the mid-300s as one of the canticles appointed for morning prayer. The 13th-century Stabat Mater (“At the cross her station keeping / Stood the mournful Mother, weeping”), popular from the time of Palestrina, became a virtual must-set for composers in Roman Catholic countries in the last century; Rossini, Dvorak, Schubert, Gounod, and Liszt also wrote their own versions.

Although both Verdi and Rossini were primarily men of the theater, their approaches to the Stabat Mater could hardly be more different. Verdi’s work is almost purely choral (one brief portion at the end has a solo soprano singing from the midst of her section); it’s introspective and prayerful, concentrating on the words and their meanings. Rossini’s music is completely divorced from the text; it’s overtly operatic in nature and would be as out of place in a church as a circus. Here the focus is on the soloists and on giving them nifty showpieces; the chorus is there primarily to sing backup or give the soloists a chance to rest. There’s no attempt to create a particular mood or to tie the ten movements into a coherent whole. This is the consequence not so much of the work’s having been written a half century before Verdi’s as of Rossini’s mind-set. This was, after all, the man who took the overture from his failed opera Aureliano in Palmira to reuse in Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra, then recyled it again in Il barbiere di Siviglia–regardless of the tragic or humorous content of the various lyrics. The heroic tune employed for the tenor aria “Cujus animam” (“Through her heart, his sorrow sharing / All his bitter anguish bearing”), for instance, could hardly be more at odds with the words. But, hey–it’s fun to listen to.

So were the soloists here, for the most part. Given a piece whose words are so somber, it’s hard to do much twinkling at the audience, but soprano Renee Fleming managed to convey sober meaning while firmly holding the crowd. Her voice is clear, soaring, and lovely, and her personality charismatic. Her outstanding performance in the title role of Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah at Lyric Opera last fall showed that she’s one of the finest young sopranos on the circuit today. She could have dominated the quartet, but admirably chose to be a team player. She was well matched with mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves (who regretted her gown’s decolletage on an unseasonably chilly evening and had to cover up halfway through the piece), who offered a rich voice and a performance filled with understanding and resonance. Tenor Gregory Kunde could have used a bit more ping in his voice, especially in the “Cujus animam,” but he sang well and with meaning. Bass-baritone Dean Peterson has a sonorous voice that he used to good effect, but his stolid attitude made him seem disengaged.

The evening’s laurels belonged to the Chicago Symphony Chorus, which I heard for the first time since the new chorus director, Duain Wolfe, took charge of the group. The sound was exciting, particularly in the a cappella sections, and I hope the chorus will receive more and better opportunities to show itself off. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra played well, with the exception of some inexcusable raggedness on the part of some of the violins at the very end of the Te Deum, which effectively killed the mood. It takes only one or two offenders to ruin the sound for the entire section, and lately this seems to have happened with some frequency. Riccardo Chailly, also a man of the theater, conducted with style and flair, bringing the evening together admirably.

I overheard some complaints that the program seemed “too heavy” for an outdoor summer festival. “Too risky” would have been more accurate, since these works, particularly the Verdi, depend for much of their effect on absolute silence as a backdrop, and absolute silence is a rare commodity in your average alfresco setting. The noise level was worse than usual on Friday night; along with the inevitable trains and seemingly inevitable fretful infants, a sadistic pilot persisted in flying his light aircraft above the festival grounds, turning up every time there was an a cappella or pianissimo section. Where’s the FAA when you need it?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Christian Steiner.