The Windy City Gay Chorus and Treble Quire, led by Artistic Director Dr. Eric Esparza, gave a festive and rousing annual holiday concert at St. James Cathedral on Saturday night. The program for Caroling All the Way was typical for these two groups: a thoughtful, careful blend of offbeat, popular carols and longer works from a more obscure side of the classical repertoire. These two mainstays of Chicago’s LGBTQ community show off exquisite vocal technique, wide dynamic range, and uncanny phrasing and intonation.
Last year’s concert at the First United Methodist Church in the loop was an absolute tour-de-force and set a very high standard. This year, however, St. James Cathedral, while a beautiful and majestic setting, is like an echo chamber. Sound bounces around everywhere in its huge and cavernous sanctuary, and musical notes, harmonies, and lyrics tend to get lost and muddied. Sitting five rows back felt like being in a deep valley with random sounds wafting in from surrounding hills, or being on the wrong end of a mile-long tube. Yet, either by deliberate calculations or sheer happenstance, the program consisted of several pieces that lent themselves fairly well to the awkward sounds of St. James.
Singing together, the ensembles opened the concert with fun variants of modern carols: Jerry Herman’s We Need a little Christmas, Jay Althouse’s duo arrangement of Winter Wonderland and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, and Mac Huff’s arrangement for vocal octet of We Wish You the Merriest. As a non-Christian sitting in a church, I always prefer secular carols and seasonal tunes to more overtly religious offerings, and the result was very enjoyable.
While the octet performed, the high pitched voices left the stage. The remaining basses, baritones, and tenors comprising the Windy City Gay Chorus then performed a delightful rendition of Carols and Lullabies, a 10-part collection of Spanish carols arranged by American composer Conrad Susa. Its airy, overtone-rich accompaniment of harp, played by Michael Maganuco, guitar, played by Brandon Acker, and vibraphone, played by Christian Hughes, was an ideal fit for the St. James’ acoustics. This was quickly demonstrated as the voices built over the quietly-played instruments to a wonderful crescendo in the opening piece Oh mi Belen!.
The work’s carols hearken from different communities in Latin America and Spain. In Allegria, baritones Jeffrey Oliveira and Daniel Bapst serenaded to a moderately paced dance from Puerto Rico. Bapst was later joined by bass Ryan Rollinson and tenors Sam Barker and Tedd McTee, in Las Posadas, a reflective tune from Spain. Other highlights were the Andalusian Campana Sobre Campana and the Spanish Chiquirriquitin, both of which feature careful, rapid syncopation between various sections of the chorus and the accompaniment. Even with the challenging acoustics, the voices were clean and the harmonies clear.
After intermission, the Windy City Treble Quire of higher pitched voices took the stage for Benjamin Britten’s heartfelt, moody and, sometimes, eerie Ceremony of Carols. Britten was an English composer whose work spanned the middle half of the 20th Century. Ceremony of Carols is very characteristic of his style. Over its ten pieces, one of which is repeated, it combines long periods of contemplation occasionally broken up by lively, industrious sounds. He also seamlessly moves between consonance and dissonance. Accompanied by a solo harp, again played by Michael Maganuco, Ceremony of Carols should have lent itself well to St. James’ acoustics, but sometimes the harmonies did not come through; the uneven PA system also created distractions.
There were still several highlights. One hears typical Britten in the tense moments created by the soprano solo in That Yongë Child, backed up by sparse plucks on the harp, which is quickly followed by Bullulalo, a brighter, yet still subdued piece for soprano solo, who is quickly joined by the choir. Sopranos Elizabeth Irvin and Beth Bellinger provided the careful contrast on Saturday night. Other highlights were the march-like Wolcum Yole and the ethereal Spring Carol, in which sopranos Nicole S. Parrini and Meggie Twible had interweaving solos.
An audience sing-along, which included Let it Snow, Frosty the Snowman, Jingle Bell Rock and others, allowed the Windy City Chorus to rejoin the Treble Quire on stage to wrap up the concert with several holiday songs. Solstice by John Purifoy was one of the highpoints of the evening. It pays homage to the northern hemisphere’s shortest day of the year. The slow pace allowed the complex harmonies to come through, even during brief passages of singing in the round. Dai Diddle Dai, a Hanukah song by David Eddleman, was another high point. It features multiple melodic layers that managed to come through.
The Windy City Gay Chorus and Treble Quire represent top-notch talent. Even in a challenging space, they offered an enjoyable performance and memorable evening. Hopefully next year’s concert will be at a venue with better acoustics.