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Music Notes: the Oriana Singers' not-just Christmas concert

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"I do like Christmas," says William Chin, director of the Oriana Singers. "There's nothing wrong with it, but you get tired of it, don't you?

"Back in 1981, when I was planning this particular program, I thought, well, everybody has a Christmas program in December, and it's usually Christmasy music. It's just carols--it's things that you hear all over the place anyway. Sometimes somebody can put together a program that is a little more interesting, with more unusual pieces, but . . ."

So Chin came up with "To Drive the Cold Winter Away," a program that mixes traditional music with some that's not only untraditional but presented in a unique way. The Oriana Singers, founded by Chin in 1978 as an ensemble for voice, over the last several years has performed "To Drive the Cold Winter Away" three times, twice as part of its subscription series and once as guest artists at another series. Last year the program was so enthusiastically received at the Morton Arboretum that Chin decided to bring it back for the company's tenth anniversary season.

The first half of the program is the traditional half, including songs like "The Holly and the Ivy" and "Hodie Christus Natus Est." "But it is in the second half of the program," Chin says, "that it becomes more than a straight concert. It becomes a little bit of theater, a little bit of poetry reading, a little bit of sitting around the fire and having an intimate music-making experience."

Back in 1981, Chin had looked at other kinds of musical programs for ideas. "At lots of churches they have something called 'Lessons and Carols,' where you have a combination of readings from the Bible, from the Lessons, and then you have carols, which in church are certainly Christmas-related. So I thought: Well, why dont we have kind of a non-Christmas, nonsacred version of 'Lessons and Carols'? Where we put together readings, not from the Bible but of poetry and prose, with music that is not Christmas music, and the focus is just the season of the year: winter."

After reviewing music and literature from several centuries, Chin came up with some unexpected selections of wintry music, ranging from Claude Debussy's "Yver, vous n'estes qu'un villain" ("Winter, You Are Nothing but a Villain") to American William Selby's "Ode for the New Year." Writings include selections from Willa Cather's O Pioneers! and T.S. Eliot's "Journey of the Magi." And Chin found a resonance between the works that suggested grouping them into four distinct cycles: cold, change, death, and celebration.

Chin has woven the music and spoken words together, with a minimum of instrumentation, to create a novel multidimensional effect. Actor Frank Farrell, well known to Chicago audiences for his performances at the Goodman, Northlight, and other theaters, handles the readings, while Marc Southard provides instrumental support on the lute. Sometimes Farrell reads solo; at other times with instrumental or vocal underscoring. Southard sometimes plays alone, sometimes with the singers. The singers also sing alone, and they sometimes pick up and extend bits of text from Farrell's readings. The result is a more textural, less conventional rendering of the season.

Growing up in Uptown and later on the northwest side, Chin never had a music lesson. His father owned a restaurant, and his mother helped there before opening a dry-cleaning business. Chin was preparing for a career in science. While attending Chicago's Foreman High School, however, he found he was talented in music. He continued his science courses through high school, but after a "wonderful experience" with the Chicago Symphony Chorus during his senior year, he shifted to music at the University of Illinois in Urbana.

Chin's evolution as an artist has been reflected in the varying size of his ensemble. At first the Oriana Singers were a small choir. But the group grew larger as the years passed, until eventually it had 17 voices. More singers, more sound, more progress, right? Not for Chin.

The group now numbers six. "Even though we're ten years old, I sometimes think we're just two years old, because it's been about that long since we distilled the form of the group into what it is now," Chin says. Being smaller means more responsibility and correspondingly greater rewards for each performer. What they do now is called one-on-a-part singing. Chin's role in the group has changed with his philosophy. "I used to stand up there and wave my arms and lead everybody," he says. "But now I am within the ensemble. The latest buzzword is 'conductorless,' so we're a conductorless ensemble."

Part of the pleasure of the Oriana Singers' concerts is their artfully selected surroundings. Last month, the ensemble performed liturgical music at the Church of the Ascension on North LaSalle. The carved stations of the cross, the votive candles burning in pots of blue glass, and the lingering smell of incense blended perfectly with the music and scriptural passages.

"To Drive the Cold Winter Away" will seek out a cozier, more convivial atmosphere: its first performance, on Sunday, December 4, at 3 PM, will be in the parlor of the Three Arts Club, the rooming house for culturally inclined young women at 1300 N. Dearborn. A second concert will be performed Saturday, December 10, at 8 PM in the parlor of the First Baptist Church of Evanston, 607 Lake St. in Evanston. Tickets are $10; $7.50 for students and seniors. Call 262-4558 for reservations.

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