Grant Park Music Festival’s choral anniversary promises to be golden

Mon Jun 11, 2012 at 1:30 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Michael Gandolfi's "Only Converge: An Exaltation of Place" will be heard in its world premiere Friday night at the Grant Park Music Festival.

Sometimes the hype has it right.

The Grant Park Music Festival, which opens its 78th season Wednesday night and runs through August 18, is unique in the nation. Its schedule of performances by the Grant Park Orchestra, Grant Park Chorus and guest soloists does offer the chance to hear ambitious, adventurous programs performed by some of Chicago’s finest musicians for free. The setting downtown in Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion at Randolph and Michigan is visually and acoustically superb.

This summer’s season is especially festive because the Grant Park Chorus, directed since 2002 by Christopher Bell, will be celebrating its 50th anniversary in high style.

Cedille Records has released the Grant Park Chorus’ first recording sans orchestra, Songs of Smaller Creatures and other American Choral Works, with Bell leading the chorus in works by David Del Tredici, Stacy Garrop, Ned Rorem and Eric Whitacre and others. And this summer the chorus will be featured in a gala program June 29-30 and concerts throughout the season featuring the chorus in repertoire ranging from Broadway show tunes to Stravinsky’s Les Noces.

Most importantly, the festival has commissioned two choral works from American composers in honor of the chorus’ golden anniversary. Only Converge: An Exaltation of Place by Michael Gandolfi is scheduled to be premiered this Friday and Saturday, and Sleepers and Dreamers by Sebastian Currier will be performed July 6-7. Carlos Kalmar, Grant Park Orchestra’s artistic director and principal conductor, will lead both sets of concerts, which will include non-vocal orchestral pieces as well.

“The commission came together rather quickly,” said Gandolfi, a faculty member at the New England Conservatory and the Tanglewood Music Center who got his musical start as an 8-year-old rock and roll guitarist. “About 14 months ago I got a call from Carlos, which is unusual. I liked that. Often, commissions come more from the administrative side rather than the artistic side.”

Kalmar learned about Gandolfi’s music from Jeremy Black, said the composer. Black is concertmaster of the Grant Park Orchestra but also a member of the Pittsburgh Symphony, which has performed music of Gandolfi in recent seasons. With the festival willing to commission two 20-minute choral works, Kalmar turned to Gandolfi for one of them. Aside from the running time, he put no restrictions on the piece’s content or style.

“Carlos basically left it wide open for me, which was very nice,’’ said Gandolfi. “Although,” the composer recalled with a laugh, “he did say, ‘I prefer that it not be a requiem.’ ‘’

Gandolfi came to Chicago last August for the final week of the festival’s 2011 season, which included Kalmar conducting the Verdi Requiem. He liked what he heard and saw at Pritzker Pavilion and beyond.

“It just blew me away, everything about it,” Gandolfi said. “The audience was so diverse. I loved that the concerts were on the short side. I’m an architecture fan and I want on one of the architectural boat tours. I was blown sideways by the whole thing.’’

Working with writer Dana Bonstrom, his partner in previous projects, Gandolfi began researching Chicago and Grant Park Festival history. After struggling with several different ideas, they settled on a two-movement structure. The text for the first movement, titled “Chicago, Summer of ’62,” is composed of phrases drawn from Chicago newspaper headlines published during the chorus’ debut weeks: July 21-Aug. 4, 1962. Gandolfi also was inspired by the relatively light content of the chorus’ first two concerts: evenings of Cole Porter and Gilbert and Sullivan.

“I said to Dana, ‘How about if we just have fun with this? How about finding headlines that are really zany and sixties-ish, zany, pop culture stuff?’ Then it just took off.”

The first movement’s music veers from uptempo, Big Band-style swinging blues to tightly harmonized jazz lines for the chorus. “It was so much fun,” said Gandolfi. “I just went to town with it. Some of it is almost like hyperactive cartoon music.”

The second movement, titled “Millennium Rising,” is more mystical. Though abstract, the text evokes the ancient origins of Lake Michigan and the arrival of Pottawatomie Indians along the shoreline.  One section reflects the drama of the 1954 seiche, a rare, fast-moving kind of tidal wave that killed eight people along the lakefront on June 26, 1954. Land and lake are two different, sometimes warring elements that ultimately come together joyfully in what Gandolfi describes as a big, expansive chorale.

“I believe the sun will have just set by that point,’’ he said. “It will be getting dark, and the chorus will be singing. The audience will have been through this journey of how we got here. They can just soak it in.”

Sebastian Currier. Photo: Jeffrey Herman

Currier’s Sleepers and Dreamers also has two sections and, like Gandolfi’s work, touches upon both the cosmic and the particular.

“On the one hand, it’s about the scientific, objective study of sleep in terms of neuroscience,’’ said Currier, who is based on the East Coast and won the Grawemeyer Award in 2007. “And it contrasts that with the strange, bizarre, subjective world of the dreams that we all experience.”

The opening text, by poet Sarah Manguso, is a lyrical description of a body relaxing into deep sleep. In the work’s second half, seven different people describe their dreams in the simplest terms. “I’m in my boyfriend’s luxurious apartment,” says Jeanine. “Many beautiful women are there.” “I am swimming, not in water, but in air,” says Leah.

“We go through these cycles of sleep,” said Currier. “We’re in Stage 3 deep sleep and then, every ninety minutes or so, we’re suddenly in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is where we do most of our dreaming.

“The piece works very much the same way. There’s a lot of choral stuff that is just vocalise. I think of that as this really remote world of us being totally asleep, where we’re strangely cut off from ourselves. And then there are these big flashes of intensity and strangeness where dreams occur.”

With two world premieres, plus big, demanding pieces by Haydn, Rossini, Orff and Dvořák, the Grant Park Chorus will not get much rest during its 50th anniversary season. But Bell isn’t worried about overtaxing his nearly 200 singers.

“The chorus is quite a versatile instrument, which it needs to be at Grant Park,” he said. “One minute we’re singing a classical piece and the next minute we’re singing an a cappella piece and then we’re doing Broadway. We need people with a lot of experience in a lot of genres.

“We’re going to have to work, but the season probably looks a little heavier for us on paper [than it actually is],” said Bell. “Ask me again in about three weeks when we’ve done two world premieres and a gala concert all within a month’s time.”

The Grant Park Music Festival opens its 78th season 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Pritzker Pavilion. Carlos Kalmar leads the Grant Park Orchestra in Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 and Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 and Cello Concerto with Alban Gerhardt as soloist.

Below is a list of the summer’s Grant Park Chorus concerts. For the complete festival schedule, go to grantparkmusicfestival.com.

June 16-17. Gandolfi’s Only Converge: An Exaltation of Place. World premiere

June 29-30. Golden Anniversary Choral Spectacular. Stravinsky’s Les Noces, Orff’s Carmina Burana, Cloudburst by Eric Whitacre and Raua Needmine (Curse Upon Iron) by Veljo Tormis

July 6-7. Currier’s Sleepers and Dreamers. World premiere

July 13-14. Broadway music by Frank Loesser with guest vocalists

July 20-21. Hymn to Matter by British composer Kenneth Leighton and Rossini’s Stabat Mater

Aug. 10-11. Haydn’s The Seasons

Aug. 17-18. Dvořák’s cantata The Spectre’s Bride

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