Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Elgin Master Chorale and Handel's "Dixit Dominus"


The Blizzard Theatre at the ECC Arts Center looked like a west coast recording studio Sunday as the Elgin Master Chorale Children's Chorus took the stage in front of an array of high end microphones.

The Chorus in matching dress performed a four song set (entirely memorized) with unisons, part singing and confident solos. Though the mics picked up a bit too much noise, the 27 voices sounded full and clear through impressive changes in tempo and key, accompanied by piano and cello.

Conductor Matthew Bishop combined material from various genres, wisely including movie music which connects choral practice to contemporary culture. An excellent spokesman and cheerleader, Bishop described the group's aim to become the region's preeminent youth singing program, comparable to the highly respected Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra.

The accomplished singers of the Elgin Master Chorale (EMC) filled the risers next, behind the 24-piece Bella Voce Sinfonia, to sing the baroque aria Jesu Meines Lebens Leben (ca. 1675) by Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707). Except for one clear, beautiful passage in the tenors, it served best as a prelude for the more thoroughly prepared masterpiece that followed.

Best known for Messiah (1741) and other works from his later career in England, Georg Friedrich Handel (1685-1759) produced hundreds of compositions of every kind over a period of more than fifty years. Born German and died an Englishman, he was strongly influenced by Italian composers and wrote music with Latin texts for Roman Catholic worship.

Among the earliest of his large scale works was the eight-part Psalm setting Dixit Dominus (1707), scored for SSATB chorus, string orchestra and continuo. The Sinfonia gave a precise orchestral introduction to the nearly 40-minute piece by 22-year-old Handel, filled with glimpses of melody and rhythmic figures that would distinguish his musical voice for generations.

The choir's tone and Latin diction were transmitted nicely through the hall, but also exposed the challenges of baroque counterpoint which become exaggerated with an ensemble more than double the size of any choir from the original period.

In homophonic sections, the singers blended beautifully, favoring the upper voices and sounding especially divine in softer moments.

Five stalwart soloists handled the inner movements of the piece, managing long and complex melodies on a single vowel with fine breath control, even in passages where young Handel wrote dangerously low or high in the range. Sopranos Hannah de Priest and Henri√ęt Fourie displayed sparkling technique and meshed nicely as a duet in part seven. Mezzo soprano Anna VanDeKerchove and tenor Matthew Dean tackled complex melismas with excellent intonation over quirky Renaissance accidentals.

Year after year, EMC Music Director Andrew Lewis gathers and develops an astonishing amount of talent to take on serious music by important composers in a professionalistic way. These concerts are a rare privilege to experience, and equally amazing is the opportunity to participate in this music making as a singer, board member or volunteer.

Lewis' dedicated artistic leadership and care for this choir's legacy as well as its future is an asset of which Elgin can justifiably boast. If the city continues to evolve into a center for the arts, it is thanks to the critical mass formed by the Elgin Master Chorale and the other superb organizations that make Elgin their home.