Once I heard Garrison Keillor describe the best moment of Christmas from his childhood. Every year, his mother would curl up alone in a chair, arriving at a hard-won moment of tranquility in a hushed and darkened living room. Tiny colored lights from the tree cast a glow across her quiet Christmas kingdom. Ah, the stillness of it all!
In this season famous for kerchunking cash registers and reveling partyers, Chicago a cappella (CAC) toned things down with a hush and whisper at their 10th annual holiday concert at Pilgrim Congregational Church, Dec. 2. Conceived by founder Jonathan Miller, this year’s program offered a soothing evening of close vocal harmonies, good will, and musical creativity, inspired by the stories of Hanukkah and Christmas from many different cultures.
Since its founding in 1993, CAC has become entrenched on the Chicago choral scene, with a sizable and hearty following in Oak Park. Their singing is a total vocal experience with no gimmicks, no tricks, no props-nothing but the bare human voice in all its beauty, multiplied by nine.
Artistic Director Miller has a reputation for culling the mysterious and unusual from the trove of choral literature. This program featured an Eskasoni version of the native Canadian First Nation Huron Carol. A plaintive and haunting baritone solo, “The stars grew dim and wand’ring hunters heard the hymn,” rose above the drone of men’s voices in the extreme depths of their vocal register. The fascinating aural effects of this setting left the room ringing with overtones akin to the Maoris of New Zealand.
On a lively note, an Igbo art song by Nigerian composer Christian Onyeji translated the familiar “For unto us” text into the highly rhythmic idioms of western Africa. The concerto-like texture pitted small groups of singers against one another in spirited and friendly competition.
Although Chicagoan Richard Proulx is too well-established in the American music scene to be considered unusual, his settings of four seasonal texts were highly original and moving. Proulx’s pensive and tender “How silent waits the listening earth” was among the freshest in the evening’s mix of rarefied singing.
Proulx’s work was complemented nicely by the ravishingly beautiful “Lullay My Liking” of Mississippian Thomas H.B. Slawson and the ethereal echoing alleluias of “The Christ-Child’s Lullaby” by Gwyneth Walker.
One of Bach’s impossibly taxing double-choir motets was balanced by the ensemble’s excursions into jazz and popular idioms in clever arrangements of “S’vivon” and “Who Is the Baby?” Sizzling close harmony is something that CAC has rightly been noted for, and the ensemble was at its best when blending into thick and lush “night-club” chords.
For anyone who wanted the tried and true, there were the lilting Nol Nouvelet, delivered in flowing French, “The Wassail Song,” putting your neighborhood carolers to shame, and “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” delivered with control, assurance, and the closing cry of “Glory, glory!”
But the most memorable moment might almost have been an afterthought: the second encore, received by a crowd of about 300, who seemed reluctant to leave at the end of the evening. With delicacy and sincerity, the singers turned silence into stillness with Elizabeth Alexander’s contemplative and hopeful “Work of Christmas,” set to Howard Thurman’s poignant text:
When the song of the angels is stilled …,
The work of Christmas begins,
To find the lost …,
To rebuild the nations …,
To bring peace …,
To make music.
(From The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations by Howard Thurman. Friends United Press, 2001 edition. Used by permission.)
Chicago A Cappella’s next concert will be Songs for Lovers (and Those Who Wish They Were), Saturday, Feb. 17 at 8 p.m. at Pilgrim Congregational Church. For tickets, call 773/755-1628 or visit www.chicagoacappella.org