A Grant Park evening mostly sublime with Gilbert and Sullivan

Sat Jul 11, 2009 at 2:19 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

You have to admire the versatility of the Grant Park Orchestra. Just 48 hours apart, they gave us a memorable reading of a challenging Bruckner symphony, and, on Friday night, morphed into a sassy Savoy pit band for an evening of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Grant Park’s annual Gilbert and Sullivan programs are a clear audience favorite, judging by the sizeable turnout at the Pritzker Pavilion Friday, aided, no doubt, by one of the summer’s more accommodating weather nights.

This year’s program centered on excerpts from The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado, and for the most part provided a lively and enjoyable evening, aided enormously by Christopher Bell’s spirited and idiomatic conducting and the fine contributions of the Grant Park Chorus.

The five soloists made a worthy ensemble team, individually and collectively. Guests Frances McCafferty and Richard Suart provided veteran Savoyard experience, manifest in their humor, pinpoint clarity and articulation, while three members of the Grant Park Chorus offered equally vital singing, showing how remarkably deep the talent bench is in that ensemble.

A couple quibbles: I would have traded most of Barbara E. Robertson’s arch, faux-grande dame narration of the baffling plots for more G&S music. And, perhaps the program was designed to avoid repeating the usual hits but it does seem odd to present extended Mikado excerpts without The flowers that bloom in the spring or There is beauty in the bellow of the blast, particularly the latter with such a characterful duo as McCafferty and Suart on hand as Katisha and Ko-Ko.

McCafferty was wonderful in the battleaxe mezzo roles, etching the right faux-operatic dramatic grandeur in Ruth’s When Fred’ric was a little lad, and as Katisha in the Act 1 finale of Mikado.

Suart’s experience was manifest in the bracing clarity of his consummately nimble I am the very model of a modern Major-General, taken at a very fleet tempo. Suart brought down the house, or park, with his updated, Chicago-centric version of the Lord High Executioner’s little list, with heat-seeking missiles launched at countertenors, tongue ring wearers, audience members’ cellphones, Bernie Madoff, Berlusconi, Governor Blagojevitch, the Cubs and Sox, and Ravinia ticket prices.

The three soloists from the Grant Park Chorus delivered equally characterful contributions. Andrew Schultze’s firmly focused voice was well displayed in the comic bass roles. Kathryn Kamp’s light, flexible soprano was shown to fine effect in lovely renditions of Poor wand’ring one and The sun, whose rays are all ablaze. And Hoss Brock’s high, plaintive tenor proved ideal for this repertoire, with his sweetly refined, A wand-ring minstrel, I, an evening highlight.

Bell showed complete sympathy for this repertoire, consistently underlining the rhythmic bounce and the breezy wit of Sullivan’s orchestrations, and drawing vibrant singing from his chorus worthy of the D’Oyly Carte ensemble.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Pritzker Pavilion. www.grantparkmusicfestival.com; 312-742-7638.

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