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Music Notes: searching for a New World Christmas

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The alto section of His Majestie's Clerkes, the Evanston-based chamber choir, will sound a little different this weekend, the beginning of its holiday concert series. One reason is that its founder and conductor, countertenor Richard Lowell Childress, has moved to England. "He had been talking about doing it at several points in the past, but this time he really did it," says alto Anne Heider, who has taken over conducting for the group. "In an English cathedral setting you sing six days a week, and that's what Rich wanted. There simply isn't that kind of opportunity here." The group also lost another countertenor--leaving it with only one countertenor and four female altos--and no one has yet been found to replace the two. "It's still one of the hottest alto sections in the city," says Heider. "But now it has a curiously sexless sound--neither male nor female--where before it had a noticeably more male sound, in the cathedral tradition."

Childress and Heider met while singing in the professional choir of Holy Name Cathedral in 1981. Childress had come down from the Twin Cities area, and had been assured by Holy Name choir director Richard Proulx that the group did lots of early music and sang with a fairly pure, straight sound. "That first rehearsal was kind of a heartbreaker for Rich," says Heider, "because although Proulx would hire sopranos and altos who could sing straight, his tenors and baritones sang dramatically, with large vibratos. There probably wasn't another choir in the midwest that sounded so strangely schizophrenic."

Several of those in the choir wanted to sing in a group that only did Renaissance music, and they started His Majestie's Clerkes ("clerke" was the title given to singers in 16th-century religious establishments). Their debut was as part of a festival program in the fall of 1982, and their first concert on their own was in the spring of 1983.

Heider and Childress alternated as conductors, choosing the repertoire for the parts of the program they conducted, and singing when they weren't conducting. Later they decided to also bring in important European choral conductors to guest direct an annual concert. Two years ago Paul Hillier worked with the group, and last year Sir David Willcocks. This May Simon Preston will be the group's guest. "What it has done artistically for us is remarkable," says Heider. "Sir David was very willing to take things apart and really look at them. And people just turned themselves inside out for him. The group really made a quantum leap in terms of both sound and technique."

Willcocks will return to conduct the Clerkes again in October 1990. Hillier will conduct them again in April, when they will participate in Chamber Music Chicago's American premiere of Arvo Part's St. John Passion at Orchestra Hall, along with soloists from the British-based Hilliard Ensemble. "It's a stunning piece," says Heider, "and I'm sure that our inclusion is a direct result of Hillier having been our guest conductor two years ago. He knows what we're capable of, and he helps us scale new vocal heights."

The Clerkes, now one of the most polished and respected choral ensembles in the midwest, recorded their first compact disc last year, a collection of Christmas music that includes much of the unusual repertoire they will perform this weekend in a program called "Christmas in the New World." This repertoire--which includes early music from Mexico, South America, and Canada, as well as spirituals and works by Samuel Barber--is breathtaking, pieces that for the most part you simply won't hear anywhere else.

"Being from New England myself," says Heider, "I was very familiar with the repertoire of composers from there, such as Daniel Read and William Billings. But that music was more English inspired. I wanted some Renaissance American music, so for that I had to turn to the Spanish cathedral traditions of Mexico and South America." Heider poked around in the Newberry and Northwestern libraries and eventually found an entire anthology of Baroque Peruvian pieces.

But Heider wanted more early American music, especially French Canadian works, the style of which she thought would "make a wonderful contrast with the Handelian New England material and the classic Renaissance style of Victoria or Guerrero. I was surprised and delighted to find that there was a good-size body of French Canadian Baroque repertoire that was specifically written not to be accompanied."

The pieces Heider found are all anonymous and were probably written by one or more of the Ursuline sisters in Quebec. "I often think of those ladies, founding their little school and convent in 1639, when Quebec was little more than a howling wilderness," says Heider. "Here were these educated, cultivated ladies from well-to-do families, who came from France because they felt that they were needed to do the Lord's work in the Canadian wilderness. It staggers the imagination, but they did it--and wrote music for themselves when they got here, because it was next to impossible to get things over here from France."

"Christmas in the New World" will be presented Sunday, December 10, at 2:30 PM, at Saint Procopius Abbey, 5601 College Road, Lisle; Saturday, December 16, at 8 PM, at Saint Luke's Church, 939 Hinman, Evanston; and Sunday, December 17, at 3 PM, at the Church of the Ascension, 1133 N. LaSalle. Tickets are $15, $12 for students and seniors. Call 708-866-7396 for further information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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