Pieces of Vespers in Chicago

vespersHad a great time in Chicago—actually, Evanston and River Forest—with the Aestas Consort, who sang two pieces from Vespers, Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern and Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn last Friday and Saturday nights.

“Herr Christ” is the a cappella hymn that begins in four parts, then goes to eight, then 16. It was the first thing I wrote when I sat down to compose Vespers, and when I sent it to Donald Nally, director of The Crossing, he wrote back that he liked it very much, but, um, the whole hour of Vespers isn’t going to be, you know, in 16 parts? It wouldn’t be, I assured him, but for some reason I felt the need to get that out of my system. Aestas Consort’s performance of “Herr Christ”:

For the Aestas performances I made a new arrangement of “Wie schön” for strings and harpsichord. I wrote a little about what that was like here. That makes two new arrangements of that since the original Renaissance-instrument version (the other’s for two trumpets, cello, and organ). Here’s the Aestas Consort performing “Wie schön”:

Friday’s concert was at the lovely St. Mark’s Episcopal in Evanston, a warm and inviting sanctuary, and Saturday’s was at Grace Lutheran in River Forest, by the campus of Concordia University Chicago. The sound in the expansive, three-balconied nave was one of the best I’ve ever experienced. It was live but true, and the sweet spot—where you can hear the direct sound from the front before side and back echoes start interfering—was huge.

The second performance at Grace brought new revelations to all the music. “Herr Christ” was magical and “Wie Schön” clicked brilliantly. The Bach Cantata 4, “Christ lag in Todesbanden,” roared in spots, the performance taking off in exciting directions.

The Buxtehude Membra Jesu nostri is a thrillingly spiritual, wildly delicious work, the combination of Scripture and bold, metaphysical commentary taking it into the realms of ecstasy. Maurice Boyer, director of Aestas, never let the pace lag (and it’s a long work, in seven parts). Musically, it comes across as a “concerto for orchestra” or in this case, choir, with solos, duets, and trios constantly shifting within the ensemble. Violinist Martin Davids led the Baroque instruments with finesse and a gorgeous sound.

Bach famously walked 250 miles to Lübeck to meet Buxtehude. I took an airplane (and with the kindness of Steven Hyder and Maurice driving me through snow), but made sure to visit a giant of Lutheran hymnody, who lives nearby, Carl Schalk. Utterly unpretentious and always cracking jokes, he regaled me in his living room with challenging thoughts on Lutheran church music, on the deep purpose of music in the service, and with behind-the-scenes stories of his important (although he’d never put it that way) career—composing, editing, writing, speaking, and decades of teaching at CUC.

As I was riding away from his house and came to the first cross-street, I looked out the passenger side, noticing an extra blue placard below the street sign. It read, “Dr. Carl F. Schalk Drive.” Man, I thought, but these Lutherans sure are serious about their musicians out here. How fortunate I was to sit and talk with this man.

And how fortunate to be with Aestas, this new, committed band of singers. Thanks for the new friends, for the reaquaintance with old friends, for the food, for the rides, for the trip, and for the big and little kindnesses shown.

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