With a glow and an assuring nod, maestra Ann Heider raised her baton, beginning yet another performance of Mozart's Requiem, this time on Tuesday, June 14 at First United Church.
It was the first in the Chicago Sings! series, a sort of "instant concert." Heider was not directing a polished ensemble, but instead an all-volunteer choir of about 100 willing souls who wandered in to warm up their voices and make their collective way through the Requiem without a rehearsal.
Begun in 1791, literally as Mozart faced his own imminent demise, and finished by one of his students afterward, the Requiem is set to the Catholic Mass for the Dead. Although the operas that had fired Mozart into the public eye in Vienna and Prague quickly fell out of vogue, the Requiem lived on, becoming one of his most well-known works and serving to immortalize Mozart in the 19th century.
Conductor of Bella Voce and faculty member at Roosevelt University, Heider is a seasoned presence before Chicago audiences. But, experience aside, there was reason to approach this requiem with trepidation.
Anyone who's performed with any ensemble, from a jazz combo to the junior high band, knows the "instant" concept brings with it a fair amount of suspense. Few trained musicians would expect a perfect reading of a major choral work the first time through. But Heider was calmly up to the challenge of keeping the ex tempore choir on track, commenting, "We've never done this music together before. We don't know what might happen. Perhaps we'll crash and burn ? but if so, we'll just snuff out the flames and keep going."
The fire department had no need to fear a call; however, the instant recipe did require a bit of water to keep all of those throats hydrated, and there was plenty of mixing among singers getting acquainted for the first time over the refreshment table. (Yes, another ingredient of the low-key recipe was cookies and juice.)
I am employed at First United Church and was honored to provide the accompaniment on the church's 9-foot Steinway concert piano, although even such a grand instrument as this could not completely capture Mozart's clever and effective use of basset horns, trombones, and full orchestra in the original version.
Heider's solid and steady command of the ensemble, coupled with the stress-free environment of performing just for fun, resulted in vibrantly soul-stirring Mozart. Not to decry perfection, because art beckons us to aspire toward great moments, but this unrehearsed reading delivered Mozart with heart and an uninhibited energy that is too often worn away through hours of practice by a typical choral ensemble.
Of special note, soloists Christine Cramer, Gretchen Windt, Ali Javaheri and Paul Scavone, who, of necessity, were hand-picked in advance, instantly melded together as a divine quartet in the prayerful "Recordare" and "Benedictus" movements.
The evening opened with the proclamation that the crowd was on hand to do something fun?#34;to sing, which, truthfully, not enough people do these days. Heider polled the singers informally and found members of more than 30 choral groups from Chicago's churches, synagogues, schools, and neighborhoods. These people know that singing figures right up there with exercise and a balanced diet as a stress-reliever and means to good health. For the Chicago Sings! bunch, there are the added achievements of sounding really pretty good, and sensing a magical solidarity with the other 99 brave souls who had also ventured forth.
Bravo to Heider and Music at First director Bill Chin for taking the risk to do what they love, and making it a community-wide event. And for you singers in the shower out there?#34;dump off the inhibitions and come to the final event in this series: Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah, conducted by Stephen Alltop, Tuesday, June 28 at 7:30 p.m. at First United Church, 848 Lake St. (Admission $8; score rental $2.)