Acappellago hopes to please the masses with, well, Masses

A cappella group Acappellago performs at Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oak Brook March 15.
A cappella group Acappellago performs at Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oak Brook March 15.

Dennis and Patricia Smith founded Acappellago about a decade ago to perform challenging and a bit out-of-the-norm music using only one instrument — the human voice. Today, thanks to dedicated singers and an Illinois Arts Council grant, Dennis continues to serve as the director of the volunteer unaccompanied choir. His wife, Patricia, a mezzo-soprano, serves as president of the group.

“What I like most about a cappella music is the freedom,” said Dennis, a singer, choral director and clarinetist.

With a cappella music, “you are not dependent on a piano, on an orchestra, on an ensemble. You can make a performance anywhere,” he said. “You can just sing. I’ve always enjoyed the sound of the human voice.”

To be sure, singing without a piano, orchestra or small ensemble to help keep the voice on pitch can be tricky — but Dennis said he’s found that the more a singer practices, the easier it gets and the more comfortable the singer feels.

Still, the music is anything but easy. Indeed, the group’s next concert, held March 15 in Oak Brook and March 16 in Batavia, challenges the 24 singers to perform a cappella Masses written by Renaissance, early 20th century and contemporary composers. The concert includes a piece by well-known composer Ralph Vaughan-Williams.

Masses most familiar to music lovers are those with orchestration, for example, Mozart’s Requiem Mass. Dennis, however, has found some lesser-known a cappella Masses he thinks the audience will enjoy. It’s really what the group is all about — presenting audiences with music they likely haven’t heard before, he said.

Dennis said he wanted to do an early-period Mass, but knew would be difficult for his group. “That era of music requires a straight pure tone, with no vibrato. Our group is geared toward doing romantic to 20th music,” which requires vibrato, he said. But he couldn’t resist William Byrd’s four-part a cappella Mass. Byrd, a late Renaissance, early baroque music composer was well-respected by his contemporaries. Byrd’s “Mass in Four Voices” is a good introduction for the audience, setting up the stage for the typical five movements in a Mass, Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, Dennis said.

The concert will also include an a cappella Mass by American composer Vincent Persichetti. His Mass is more complex than Byrd’s, switching from harmony to unison to somewhat atonal music. “I love American music. I don’t think it gets done nearly enough,” Dennis said.

The highlight of the concert, Patricia said, is the Mass in G minor by Ralph Vaughan-Williams. “It’s a beautiful piece of music,” she said. “It’s rarely performed, but it has the Vaughan-Williams familiarity to it and a totally English feel.”

Dennis agreed. “It’s an incredible piece of music for double choir. I love the beauty of it — his modal way of writing — this is one piece that someone would almost rather sit and listen to than perform.”

Dennis promises when the audience hears the Vaughn-Williams Mass “they are going to melt.”

The “Escape to Masses” concert is different from other performances, which have focused on more than one type of piece and contained about 20 short pieces. The group has done jazz, gospel, sacred and folk music, and to be whimsical, members typically wear Hawaiian shirts for their performances.

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