Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus go deep, soar high with Haydn, Debussy

Sat Aug 04, 2018 at 12:07 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Carlos Kalmar conducted the Grant Park Orchestra & Chorus in music of Haydn and Debussy Friday night at the Harris Theater. Photo: Norman Timonera

The two main compositions presented by the Grant Park Orchestra Friday night at the Harris Theater had little in common, as Carlos Kalmar noted in his introduction. “We are doing two pieces . . . that don’t really work [together].”

Such is the iconoclastic beauty of Grant Park Music Festival programming. But if the pairing of Debussy and Haydn was somewhat odd, the works were better suited to the indoors venue– where true pianissimos are discernible away from the screaming sirens and assorted al fresco din of the Pritzker Pavilion.

There is one thing to be grateful for on the first weekend of August, when Lollapalooza chases the Grant Park Orchestra from the Pritzker Pavilion to the temporary underground sanctuary of the Harris. It is always edifying to hear the ensemble unplugged in a good acoustic and be reminded what an excellent and flexible orchestra this is.

Friday’s performance of Debussy’s elusive Nocturnes was wholly mesmerizing from start to finish. From the hushed, refined strings of the opening pages of “Nuages,” Kalmar skillfully judged the ebb and flow, drawing out the score’s evocative languor, aided by Anne Bach’s atmospheric English horn playing.

“Fetes”–the middle part of the triptych—brought the requisite contrast in its burst of bright energetic brilliance. Yet even here, Kalmar found something new, with an edgy, nervous quality in the processional that gave extra bite.

The final section, “Sirenes,” is a veritable minefield for female chorus. Yet under the direction of Christopher Bell, the women of the Grant Park Chorus brought refined expression and immaculate intonation to their mercilessly exposed role. Kalmar guided the long lines in alert yet flexible fashion, and the women rendered the sea sirens’ wordless vocalise to haunting, otherworldly effect.

Haydn’s “Theresa” Mass in B-flat major is less familiar stateside than his other late masses, largely due to its less flashy wind scoring (just pairs of clarinets and trumpets and a single bassoon). Yet this is a magnificent work, with much superb music, perfectly balanced and expertly distributed among the four soloists, chorus and orchestra.

As fine as the Debussy was, Friday night’s performance of the “Theresienmesse” was on an even higher level. In fact, I’ve never heard a finer live performance of any Haydn mass than this one.

From the gracious lilt of the opening Kyrie, every element was perfectly aligned from top to bottom–choral singing, orchestra playing and the soloists’ contributions. Far from being thinly orchestrated, the Grant Paak strings’ spirited playing consistently injected a dose of huge vitality to the proceedings.

It’s hard to keep coming up with superlatives for the Grant Park Chorus. With polished and expressive commitment, all the varied moments registered with full impact from the stern darkness of the opening of the Agnus Dei to the burst of spiritual rejoicing in the Credo’s “Et resurrexit.”

But, along with Kalmar’s precise and idiomatic direction, it was the uncommonly rich-voiced and well-balanced quartet that put the seal on this Haydn performance.

The soloists in Haydn’s mass were (from left) Michael Sumuel, Brendan Tuohy, Lauren Segal and Janai Brugger. Photo: Norman Timonera

Janai Brugger’s pure, bell-like soprano and easily produced high notes were a consistent pleasure. Mezzo Lauren Segal provided dusky-voiced yet poised vocalism, alongside Brendan Touhy’s big, vibrant tenor. The quartet was anchored by Michael Sumuel’s sonorous yet surprisingly flexible bass. A Haydn performance to treasure.

Music of Haydn led off the program as well with “The Representation of Chaos” from The Creation. This opening section from Haydn’s oratorio depicts the creation of the earth out of a formless miasma. The strange sounds and unsettled harmonics of this music feel jarringly modern even today. Kalmer led the orchestra in a taut, concentrated reading that drew out the forward-looking dissonance.

There is one more performance tonight. It’s worth dealing with the hassle of the weekend Lolla crowds to catch this program. a highlight of the summer season.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Harris Theater. gpmf.org

 

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