The South Side’s premier classical music presenter ended its 2021–22 season earlier this month with two memorable concerts. University of Chicago Presents (UCP) closed out the performing year with the final installment in the Sound/Sites series and followed that a few days later with an early music recital at the Logan Center.
Sound/Sites was created during the pandemic to offer a streamed concert with a bonus: a video where the architecture of the venue is made a part of the performance. The final video featured soprano Sarah Brailey, the new director of the vocal studies program at UChicago. She accompanied herself at the piano for half of the concert and was joined by cellist Caleb van der Swaagh for the other half.
Brailey is alone with a grand piano for the Fulton Recital Hall portion of the concert. The burnished wood as well as the magnificent tall windows at the back of the stage added drama to her well-selected group of songs. Florence Price was on her program, represented by one of her most popular works, “Night.” Brailey imbued the song with a hymn-like quality, singing with a gentleness that invoked the stillness of night. For Jacqueline B. Hairston’s “On Consciousness Streams” the soprano had a direct and engaging approach. The camera angles included one which made it seem as if you were curled up inside the piano and she was singing just for you. The sunlight flooding from the windows gave her face a warm, almost ethereal glow.
“What strange music comes my way” is a line from “Deep in the Dark” by Adolphus Hailstork. The composer’s unexpected stings in his engrossing melodies were fully exploited by Brailey, who brought an understated, earthy quality to the bluesy music. “Theology” by Betty Jackson King was given a pretty treatment and there is one ascending passage where you thought Brailey could go no higher, and yet she did — and did it most beautifully.
The other half of the concert was filmed at the Smart Museum where the soprano was joined by cellist Caleb van der Swaagh. They were surrounded by inspirational art from the exhibition “Bob Thompson: This House Is Mine,” adding considerable zest to the proceedings. Jessie Montgomery’s “Loisaida, My Love,” a homage to a Lower East Side neighborhood in New York City, gave Brailey a chance to show her jazzy side, which she did with a charming lightness.
The duo offered a wonderful performance of excerpts from James Kallembach’s “Eleven Songs on Poems of Anne Bradstreet.” Anguished worry for a son eventually gives way to joy upon his return. Brailey’s interpretation of texts written 400 years ago were sensitive and moving. In the solo interlude, Van der Swaagh was able to conjure up storms, plaintive cries and sounds of triumph in convincing fashion.
The Bang on a Can version (arranged by David Lang) of Lou Reed’s “Heroin” will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the program notes pointed out that artist Bob Thompson, whose art surrounds the performers, died of a heroin overdose. The music is spare, dark and haunting. The stream closed with the short song cycle “Living in Light” by Heather Gilligan. The music was attractive and approachable and the performance was fresh.
The final live concert of the UCP season took place two Friday nights ago at the Logan Center. Ensemble Correspondances, a French early music group led by Sébastien Daucé, offered a delightful romp through music of the Grand Siècle. The program, entitled “Les Plaisirs du Louvre.” featured a wide range of composers, including Antoine Boesset, François de Chancy and Étienne Moulinié.
The nine singers and eight instrumentalists worked together like a well-oiled machine and when all of them were not required for certain works, they effortlessly formed various smaller groups. The vocal sound was glorious with pure tones shorn of vibrato, good balance and tightly controlled polyphony. The instrumentalists created a wealth of sound using only violins, flute, viola da gamba, theorbo and keyboard.
The result was an elegant evening of French music sung by French musicians clearly steeped in its history. None of us can know exactly what it was like to live in the age of the Sun King, but Ensemble Correspondances gave us a beautiful peek into the music of his time.