Cantate Chicago presented a program entitled “In View of Eternity” under artistic director Benjamin Rivera Friday night at St. Josaphat Church in Lincoln Park. The concert was devoted to musical meditations from diverse creeds on the concept of everlastingness, and offered a choral showcase of a very high order.
The first half was almost entirely a cappella and opened with two works written in remembrance of those who perished in the Holocaust.
David White’s 1988 Enosh kehchatzir yamav, was written for the Yom Kippur Yizkor (Memorial) Service at Chicago’s Temple Menorah while the composer was its resident organist. From a haunting unison soprano opening, the setting channels Renaissance polyphony, but evolves into a more impassioned style. Cantate’s rendition amply filled Josaphat’s generous acoustic with sophisticated balance and an austere aura of remembrance.
Stephen Paulus’ “Hymn to the Eternal Flame” is from his larger oratorio To Be Certain of the Dawn, which specifically memorializes the children who perished in the Holocaust. As Rivera mentioned in his prefatory remarks, the work might easily come across as merely a pleasant song, but given its context, the impact is leveling. From the texture of the whole chorus a small quorum of sopranos (standing in for one of actual children) emerged, affectingly capturing the supreme innocence of children killed by forces larger than they can comprehend. The ensemble again delivered, its powerfully understated performance ending in the muted humming of voices being silenced.
Edwin R. Fissinger’s Lux aeterna also received a refined reading, baritone Michael Brown robustly intoning the opening Latin lines and soprano Amanda Holm Rosengren providing supple solo turns.
Chicago Symphony cellist Daniel Katz joined the singers for a stirring performance of John Tavener’s Svyati. This 1995 setting of a portion of the Russian Orthodox service is frequently used at funerals after those present have kissed the body in an open casket. The work opened with Katz playing rising figures murkily ascending from a low E, the basses of the chorus joining him on that pitch. Between Katz and the bass voices that tone sustains throughout the entire work, creating a profound sense of an unseen yet omnipotent force. The chorus maintained its high level, sounding especially burnished on group entrances on the word “Svyati.” Katz’s rhapsodic playing closed the work with ethereal harmonics that conveyed the sense of ascension from the depths.
Norman Luboff’s arrangement of the spiritual Deep River closed the first half. Cantate sang with idiomatically drawn out vowels in the word “my” (“mah”), and gave an emphatically impassioned invitation to the “Gospel feast.” Mezzo-soprano Denise Knowlton’s solo was especially soulful.
Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem constituted the entire second half, performed in John Rutter’s 1989 reconstruction of the composer’s original scoring for chamber ensemble. The instrumental forces (strings, horns, harp, and organ) maintained a fittingly dark, blended sonority throughout, though the church’s acoustic sometimes muddied their moving lines.
As throughout the evening, Rivera’s leadership approach was judicious, non-intrusive, and never fussy, allowing the well-prepared singers to shine. Among the highlights were the soaring soprano lines that opened both the “Sanctus” and “In Paradisum.” Baritone Dan Richardson sang his solo in the “Libera Me” with pathos and a beseeching quality, and soprano Alexia Kruger Rivera’s limpid “Pie Jesu” was achingly beautiful.
By way of an encore the chorus sang Alice Parker’s jubilantly folksy arrangement of Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal, closing the evening on an uplifting note after much edifying rumination on infinitude.