Tuesday, November 29, 2011

An evening listening to Chicago A Cappella at Pilgrim Congregational Church in Oak Park.

Concert: Sunday, October 16TH at 4pm

Post date: Sunday, October 16th

The sanctuary I enter is massive, well lit, and in full attendance. Light filters through large stain glass windows on all four sides. The sanctuary is the shape of a rounded cube, it is perfectly symmetrical, and an 8-sided star motif echoes throughout. When I finally find a seat, I am greeted with smiling faces by the other people in my pew.

After the briefest of introductions, the crowd warmly welcomes the Chicago A Cappella ensemble, which is composed of 9 singers and one conductor. Shortly after, a male soloist begins, and is then joined by the 4 others standing behind him at the front of the space. Then suddenly, a group of voices chimes in from behind. You can hear the creaking of pews as the entire audience turns their head to the new sound. The chorus now literally surrounds the crowd as their voices ring back and forth, submerging the audience with the tempestuous waves of their voices. The shape of the sanctuary seems to be in their favor, as the slightest raising of voice causes a shift in volume, and with it, a more intensely felt emotion comes across.

Each voice stands out as it enters and leaves the soundscape that has formed around me. Full and proud, the singers are capable of expressing pure joy or devastating sadness. Each song has such identifiable character, and this is not entirely due to the fact that I could understand them, since more than half of the songs were in Hebrew. Though it was more distracting to focus on the members themselves, it was intriguing how expressive their faces were. A sad song would make me feel sympathetic, and when they performed a more joyous song, they where so energetic and full of life that I could tell I wasn’t the only one wanting to join in the fun.

The theatrical use of the space in the first number left the audience not knowing where to turn their heads. From then on, they kept the audience guessing where new voices would come from. I close my eyes to focus my attention completely on the music, and all of a sudden, everything is clearer. It is as if I am alone with the group on stage, as the presence of the audience is no longer felt around me. I may not have been the only one who has this thought, since the audience seemed much quieter from then on. I sit back, and begin to separate out each voice in my head, sensing the emotion in their voices even stronger.

This musical group works incredibly well together. With 4 men and 5 women, each number is so incredibly organized; so much care has been put into what responsibilities are assigned to each individual. As I listen, I can’t help but imagine how long it must take to reach such a level of discipline.

The concert lasted 2 hours, with a short intermission half way through. In fact, the intermission took me by surprise, since I had gotten so wrapped up in the music. I didn't want to miss anything, and stayed in my seat until the music started up again. The second half of the performance was noticeably more cheerful in feel than the first. I even recognized a few numbers as jazzed up versions of old jewish holiday favorites, and nearly sang along (but stopped myself and left the singing to the professionals).

Chicago A Cappella is a group that performs Jewish spiritual a cappella music, as well as Gregorian chant and, according to their profile, even covers of songs from the Beatles. Most of the time they travel around to the different neighborhoods of Chicago and the surrounding area to share their music. They have also toured the rest of the United States and Mexico. The show I went to see was part of a series of concerts entitled “Days of Awe and Rejoicing: Radiant Gems of Jewish Music”. They first performed in Hyde Park, then Evanston, then Oak Park, an lastly Naperville.

I felt it was important to drop in on this event as part of my investigation into the world of a cappella music. I will also be looking into Byzantine chant, and even Islamic prayer recitation. This is only breaking the surface of the a cappella genre, considering the countless types there are. I find it interesting how similar these spiritual uses of a cappella are, and how successful they are in conveying such intense emotion.

On the website for this event, there are audio samples of some of the numbers the group performs. I recognize a few of these from what I saw them perform, including Hal’luyah, and Oseh Shalom. I highly recommend listening to these clips, as well as making it out to see them at a future event. I found the performance to be incredibly enjoyable, and stayed after for cookies and to compliment the performers. I even entered to win a signed copy of their CD. Wish me luck!

More information on Chicago A Cappella here:


Check out the concert preview video:


Chicago A Cappella on youtube:



Sign in front of the building
Front end of the building
Awesome license plate!

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