His Majestie’s Clerkes and Chicago a Cappella

at Grace Lutheran Church,

River Forest, April 20

By Sarah Bryan Miller

Nothing is more formidable for choral singers than performing a cappella, but few things are more basic to their art. The essence of singing in a chorus is to listen to one’s colleagues and perform in a way that complements them and blends with them. An unleashed ego is a luxury a soloist can sometimes afford (or get away with), but the chorister must consciously work for the good of the whole group and the group’s sound, holding back even when it would be so much more fun to blast away. A cappella singing demands that one not only listen with all the care one can muster, but also manage without a fundamental prop–a piano or an orchestra, the loss of which makes singing in tune a much greater challenge.

Staying in tune is tricky enough for unaccompanied solo singers (barring the minority blessed with perfect pitch, who for some reason rarely seem to have beautiful voices to go with it). Most people tend to get flatter and flatter (musical entropy?) as a work wears on. A group of voices, whether a quartet or a large chorus, faces even more downward pressure, and it’s not unusual for intonation to drop a full step or more in only a few measures–something that’s particularly embarrassing when the orchestra enters in tune, painfully revealing the fact to the immediate world. What sounded just fine by itself–the voices tend to go down together, maintaining their subjective pitch–becomes unbearably sour when the right pitches are authoritatively proclaimed.

The longer the piece, the greater the danger. When the combined Lyric Opera and Chicago Symphony choruses recorded Henryk Gorecki’s massive, unaccompanied Miserere two years ago, the task of keeping a 200-voice choir in tune for the half hour the work lasts proved the most difficult part of the project. This tendency to droop can be a real problem for the lower voices; while falling pitch can be a boon for sopranos and tenors, they can push altos and basses to the bottoms of their ranges and well out of their areas of vocal beauty.

A cappella work can also reveal lapses in musicianship. The world (particularly the church-choir world) is full of altos, tenors, and basses who can sing parts while the piano or organ is doubling their lines. But remove that help and they stumble. Consciously or not, they’re listening to the instrument instead of reading their lines, and singing along with it instead of with their fellows.

Despite all this, a cappella singing can be devastatingly effective. In Verdi’s Requiem the unaccompanied sections are a beautiful contrast to the bombast of the “Dies Irae” and point up the meaning of the text quietly but very persuasively. Canny church organists sometimes drop out of a hymn for a verse (this works best with a large congregation that knows the music, aided by a strong choir) before coming back in with all the stops literally pulled out–to greater effect than if the organ had stayed in at a mezzo-piano level. And is there anything that says “Christmas” more than “Silent Night” sung in a darkened church with no accompaniment at all?

Groups that specialize in a cappella choral singing are at their best when they’ve worked together for a while, when they know their colleagues, their voices, and their idiosyncrasies well. At that point some of the labor of listening and adjusting becomes automatic and less difficult. At that point they can begin to perform almost as an organic unit; they can overcome the problems of a cappella singing and concentrate on its advantages.

Two choruses that, in slightly different ways, illustrate the beauties of unaccompanied choral singing performed separately and together Saturday night in a truly extraordinary concert. One of the strengths of His Majestie’s Clerkes, founded in 1982 and sounding better than ever, is their willingness to collaborate with other ensembles and with guest directors. It’s hard to imagine most conductors handing over control of the podium and retiring to the back of the alto section, but that’s what Anne Heider, the remarkably unegomaniacal artistic director for the Clerkes, does on a regular basis for recordings and concerts.

This time the partnership was with Chicago a Cappella, a three-year-old, nine-voice group led by Jonathan Miller, who doubles as a bass. Each ensemble presented a short selection of works, and after the intermission returned as one body to perform the featured work of the evening, Frank Martin’s Messe pour double choeur.

The Clerkes began with a minireview of Tudor church music–by Christopher Tye, Thomas Tallis, Henry Purcell, and William Byrd–that beautifully displayed the glories of both this underperformed school and the Clerkes themselves. Their singing was very fine throughout, with smooth woven sounds. Tallis’s “Why fum’th in sight” (the tune used by Ralph Vaughan Williams in his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, and familiar today as the hymn “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say”) was especially effective, while the final work of the section, Byrd’s “Timete Dominum,” was utterly exquisite.

Chicago a Cappella performs standing in a half square with director Miller on the far right, an arrangement that helps the singers hear one another–though in a group this small it’s probably inevitable that a voice or two will stick out now and then. They opened with three movements from Les chansons des roses by contemporary composer Morten Johannes Lauridsen, a lovely, evocative work with echoes of Debussy and Faure that they sang with subtlety, creating delicate traceries of sound. Despite the gulf of centuries and the differences of language, this section fit remarkably well with the Clerkes’ opening section.

Successful on its own terms, but not as happy in combination with the rest of the evening’s music, was a medley of spirituals, “Where the Sun Will Never Go Down,” arranged by Joseph Jennings of the San Francisco-based group Chanticleer. The score attempts to create authentic gospel sounds using a small professional singing ensemble, and the results are somewhere in between a down-home black church choir and the homogenized version of “Ride On, King Jesus” that every high school and college choir seems to keep at the ready. The members of Chicago a Cappella carried it off quite well, though the final section, “I got shoes,” was a little too solemn. The voices were swinging, but with a couple of exceptions the faces would have been more appropriate to Faure’s Requiem. Still, these are minor quibbles, and this is an outstanding group.

Swiss composer Frank Martin’s Messe was written in the 1920s (though not released for performance until the 60s), and its modalities prefigure the things that composers such as Arvo Part are coming up with today. Tonal and accessible, it offers primitive, angular harmonics, drones, interesting vocal colors, and touches of jazz rhythm. It’s a more than worthwhile piece–Martin seems to have considered the meaning of most of the words in writing it–and the Clerkes and friends should think about recording it. The combined choruses sang with sensitivity and great beauty of sound, the direction bringing out the music’s texture and design.

Director Heider was greatly aided by the acoustics of Grace Lutheran Church, which has just the right reverberation time for music of this sort. The combined choruses offered an encore, colonial composer William Billings’s “Creation,” conducted by Jonathan Miller, sung with great verve and a nicely blended sound.

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