Just as predictably as December follows November, so too does familiar Christmas music pop up this time of year: Bing Crosby crooning “White Christmas,” Eartha Kitt cooing “Santa Baby,” that blasted little drummer boy. Choirs, which have their bread-and-butter season around Christmas, have their own stable of well-ridden reindeer, such as “Riu, Riu, Chiu,” Victoria’s “O Magnum Mysterium,” or “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” from Handel’s Messiah. At its Christmas concert, the William Ferris Chorale, a 24-voice chamber ensemble, bucks the reindeer in favor of less-familiar, but equally beautiful, repertoire.
“The Christmas concerts are always my favorite,” says John Vorrasi, the choir’s artistic director. “It’s a wide-ranging program—early music, sometimes Gregorian chant. We often feature a contemporary work. We’ve done many works by early-20th-century composers—[Ottorino] Respighi, [Francis] Poulenc. It’s not your ‘Jingle Bells.’ It has a real spiritual feel to it.”
This year’s program, titled Triptychs, comes in threes. The opening triad consists of Russian and Ukrainian sacred works suppressed under Communism. A set of arrangements by the British composer Grayston Ives follows. In the second half, the choir premieres Winter Songs, by the local composer Lita Grier. Like most of the contemporary music the choir performs and like Ferris’s own compositions, Grier’s settings of turn-of-the(-20th)-century winter poetry land somewhere between thorny, difficult modern music and New Agey pabulum. “They’re strong and harmonically palatable, and keep the audience in mind,” Vorrasi says.
At a time of year when some radio stations could make like Steve Martin’s weatherman in L.A. Story and prerecord a whole month of programming, inventive live performance can get you to see the scaffolding of all this tradition in a new, sparkling light. Bing Crosby will always be there afterward.
The William Ferris Chorale performs Triptychs December 8th at Madonna della Strada Chapel at Loyola University, December 9th at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in La Grange, and December 16th at St. Clement Church in Lincoln Park. For info, williamferrischorale.org.
Graham Meyer is Chicago magazine’s contributing classical music critic.
Photograph: Courtesy of William Ferris Chorale