Holiday vocal concerts always give me trepidation. While choral concerts often include popular songs that crowd out the classical repertoire, during the holidays, any manner of music, classical and popular, good and not-so-good, can find its way onto a concert program.
Religion is also a concern. Although I am not a Christian, I do love several religious Christmas carols but am always uncomfortable when a concert is indistinguishable from a sacred ceremony. I want to hear the carols for the sake of art, not to be proselytized to. This is particularly hazardous when the setting is in a church sanctuary.
A pretty safe bet is the annual Don We Now holiday concert by the Windy City Treble Quire and Windy City Gay Chorus at the First United Methodist Church in the loop. These choirs from the LGBTQ community do perform classical music, but the program for Don We Now comes mainly from popular culture, much of it rarely heard and little known. I never fear religious proselytizing, but the singing by these very talented musicians is so good, it can reach heavenly proportions. Their performance late Saturday afternoon was true to form.
These groups distinguish themselves by voice, as opposed to gender. The Treble Quire, which was recognized during the concert for its 20 years of music making, is for altos and sopranos. While this generally applies to women, Saturday’s ensemble did include a man with an exceptionally high-pitched voice. The Windy City Gay Chorus, formed in 1979, is for bases and tenors. Although it was comprised only of men on Saturday, women with low-pitched voices can also be members. As usual, both groups performed together and separately in Don We Now.
This year’s concert was the first to be conducted by Eric Esparza, the new Artistic Director of Windy City Performing Arts, which heads both ensembles. He seized with gusto his opportunity to show off his directing and programming prowess. The directing skills were clear from the beginning, helped by the wealth of talent onstage. Excellent musicianship was everywhere on display. The singing had verbal clarity and precise diction; the harmonic intonation was spot-on.
Although he included very little actual classical music, Esparza’s programming choices were imaginative. In addition to having a nice balance between familiar and unfamiliar, the pieces were largely hopeful, a fact he pointed to during the concert in reference to our recent election, which was especially difficult for the LGBTQ community.
The concert started well with percussionist Aidan Kranz banging the bongos, to which the combined ensembles solemnly entered in pairs along the center aisle. Upon ascending the risers, without pause or introduction, the singers broke into Jay Althouse’s arrangement of Keep You Lamps Trimmed and Burning, which was set to the same rhythms that the bongos had established at the entrance. Although the song is based on material from the gospels, there was no reference to religion in either the performance or the notes. Soprano Nicole S. Parrini offered a brief, folksy solo.
This was followed by a very polished rendition, arranged by Harry Simeone, of Do You Hear what I Hear, a religious carol I’ve always loved. Esparza’s careful conducting was on display with an effective building of volume and intensity as the carol progressed, helped by Kranz on the snare drum and Madelyn Tan Cohen on piano.
Afterwards the Gay Chorus left the stage and the Treble Quire sang several numbers. Their modern rendition of Angels We Have Heard on High, in an arrangement by Cary Ratcliff, featured soprano Beth Bellinger and alto Kelsey Braman singing a duet that was well balanced with each other and the rest of the choir. My favorite piece by the Treble Quire was While the Snow Lay Sleeping, a secular song by Heather Sorenson. The ensemble’s careful harmonies created a perfect tension for this moody work about life and the change of seasons.
The Gay Chorus rejoined the Treble Quire for the final song of the first half, Chanukah Suite by Jason Robert Brown. It featured a quartet of soloists, in which soprano Parrini was joined by alto Rebecca Zili, tenor Sam Barker, and baritone Kevin Larson. Although they sang accurately and faithfully to the score, a more evenly operatic vocal approach would have been better.
The second half started with the Gay Chorus. The 18th century song The Holly and the Ivy, arranged by Mark Patterson, featured careful harmonies and a solo by tenor Bill Colson, with Cohen and cellist Joshua Dema playing back-up. In Dormi Jesu, Esparza himself arranged for bases and tenors a work originally by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Pie Jesu. It allowed the first tenors to demonstrate their wide vocal range.
The groups joined forces to close out the concert, starting with a sing-along medley based on Auld Lange Syne. This was followed by a raucous version of Jingle Bells, complete with hats, props, gifts, and candy canes set to various melodies from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet. These included the March, Dance of the Flutes, Waltz of the Flowers, and, of course, the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. This is the sort of thing I usually hate, but it was so tongue-in-cheek I really enjoyed it.
The concert wrapped up with the central African Christmas carol Noel! Arranged by Brad Holmes, this piece has nothing to do with the traditional Noel. The performers sang it with arm movements, clapping, percussion, and dance moves, which made for quite a finish.
If this concert is any indication, Esparza’s tenure with Windy City Performing Arts should be quite memorable. The next event will be a cabaret show, Down With Love, which coincides with Valentine’s Day, on Sunday, February 12, at the Uptown Underground, 5:30 pm. They will also be doing Faure’s Requiem on Saturday, March 18, 5:00 pm, at the Chicago Temple. For more information, check out http://windycitysings.org/.