Bel Canto sings Hynson’s “Evensong”
In a spiritually and musically captivating performance Sunday afternoon, the Bel Canto Chorus and Bel Canto Boy Choirs matched the grandeur of St. Joseph Center Chapel, an architectural treasure on Milwaukee’s South Side.
The chapel was the perfect setting, both thematically and acoustically, for a program that featured music director Richard Hynson’s Evensong. A sold-out crowd filled oak pews facing three marble altars and surrounded by detailed Biblical mosaics, stained glass windows, towering pillars, and delicately lit chandeliers. The choruses, with Hynson conducting, used the space exquisitely. They allowed meditative echoes where appropriate and articulated text so that meaning was not lost in the vastness.
Hynson wrote Evensong in 1999, in thanksgiving for his first decade as Bel Canto music director and in honor of David and Roseann Tolan’s 40 years of service to Bel Canto. Evensong is the choral rendering of an Anglican Evening Prayer, corresponding to the Roman Catholic Vespers. Sunday marked the first performance of Hynson’s revised and expanded version. It featured baritone Jonathan Laabs and soprano Rebecca Whitney.
Laabs’ passionate, mellow baritone and Whitney’s glistening soprano were incorporated seamlessly throughout. In one particularly moving passage during the Magnificat, Whitney hovered through a haunting, minor melisma on the words, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.”
Hynson uses tone painting frequently and effectively. For example, in the Apostles’ Creed, hammering voices repeat the word “crucified,” driving home the horrific act of nailing Christ to the cross. A bit later, pitch rises incrementally on repetitions of “ascended into heaven.”
Benjamin Britten’s equally intense Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac, Op. 51, for solo alto and tenor with piano, followed. Britten drew on the Chester Mystery Plays to re-tell the Old Testament story.
The rich, mature voices of countertenor Eric Jurenas, as Isaac, and tenor Daniel O’Dea, as Abraham, along with pianist Michelle Hynson, produced a flawless, compelling performance. At times, Britten’s musical setting of text is a bit too restrained for its content – namely, a father discussing with his son his divine duty to kill him. Suspenseful piano accompaniment, however, does help to advance the emotional storyline. The most musically beautiful sections of the work occur when God speaks through the convergence of the two voices in duet. Jurenas and O’Dea’s impeccable balance and pitch throughout these close harmonies created a single, transcendent voice.
The Bel Canto Boy Choirs provided a refreshing break with Bonnie Barrows’ Ave Maria, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Bist du bei mir, and John Rutter’s For the Beauty of the Earth. The choir, in its third season, the choir blended well and had a balanced, full sound in these brief works, despite its small size relative to the space. The Rutter piece was particularly touching and moved the audience visibly.
The program concluded with Gerald Raphael Finzi’s Lo, the Full, Final Sacrifice, which sets an evocative text on the Eucharist to music for full choir and organ. Teddy Esten (treble), Daniel O’Dea (tenor), and Jonathan Laabs (baritone) sang the solos, and Kevin Bailey played the organ.
Sound poured forth as if from the sky, as choir sang from the balcony. We were left to contemplate the words, absorb the transcendent voices, and gaze at the resplendent beauty of our surroundings through the final Amen.