With unplanned weather, Torke’s “Plans” receives ardent if soggy premiere

Sat Jun 20, 2009 at 1:38 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

It’s always a great idea to make big plans, but it’s sometimes difficult when the weather doesn’t cooperate.

The Grant Park Music Festival premiered Plans by Michael Torke Friday night, a work commissioned by the festival as part of the city-wide events marking the centennial of Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago. 
 
A raging thunderstorm and heavy rains drenched Millennium Park during the performance, yet, in the game tradition of Burnham, the show went on, with many hardy souls remaining in the exposed seats bundled up under umbrellas.

 With Bill Kurtis as master of ceremonies,  an array of Illinois officials and dignitaries were introduced before the performance, with Mayor Daley sending his greetings via recording from Switzerland. Governor Quinn seemed relieved to be at an occasion that was more celebratory than political, wryly noting, “I’ve been governor for two months and two days, and it’s seemed like twenty years.”

 Plans is written on the large scale, a 40-minute choral symphony for soprano and tenor soloists, chorus and orchestra. The text comes from Burnham’s eloquent words from his visionary 1909 civic plan, notably the celebrated advice, “Make no small plans.”

 Cast in five movements, the music reflects Torke’s user-friendly style, with the opening section “Make Big Plans,” displaying broad melodies for chorus against restless, quasi-Minimalist orchestral counterpoint. The second movement, “Noble Diagrams,” offers a tolling bell-like consonance in the chorus’s eighth-note phrases. The two soloists are to the fore in “Long After We Are Gone,” the nostalgic music evocatively rendered by Jonita Lattimore’s lush soprano and Bryan Griffin’s youthful, vibrant tenor.

“Our Sons and Grandsons” is the most characteristic movement with its slow wind-up to an explosion of competing, sharply rhythmic choral and orchestral riffs. The finale, “Your Watchword,” begins in a stately consolatory fashion, soloists, chorus and orchestra rising to an effectively joyous yet dignified conclusion that manages to avoid bombast.

 Plans is an appealing, melodic, and smartly crafted work that deserves a concert life beyond the local interest and ceremonial occasion of its Chicago premiere.  Even with the meteorological distractions and short rehearsal time, Carlos Kalmar led a well-prepared, energetic and communicative performance, and Christopher Bell’s chorus sang with conviction and agility. Clarity of words was sometimes wanting from the chorus members and Lattimore, though that may have been in part due to the amplification that from the left front seats, cast a metallic edge over the sound.

 The bait for the concert was Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Jon Kimura Parker as soloist, written the same year as Burnham’s document. 

kimuraparkerParker is one of those artists that tend to get taken for granted, and on Friday night, the Canadian pianist delivered a powerhouse performance of Rachmaninoff’s mighty Third. In addition to surmounting the work’s knuckle-busting complexities, Parker brought the requisite big sonority as well as the poetic sensibility for this music.  The rains came during the final movement, yet Parker showed supreme grace under pressure, undistracted by the intensity of rain and thunder, which provided a kind of climatological accompaniment to the acceleration and mounting excitement of the final bars.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday.  312-744-9179; www.grantparkmusicfestival.com

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