Grant Park Chorus soars in American program

Wed Jul 01, 2009 at 5:57 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The Grant Park Chorus performed Tuesday night at the Harris Theater.

Accomplished as the Grant Park Orchestra performances have been this season, it was an enlightening experience to hear the Grant Park Chorus sans symphony, as the singers took the spotlight Tuesday night at the Harris Theater.

The Grant Park Chorus has an extremely demanding summer with Shostakovich’s Song of the Forests and Michael Torke’s Plans behind them, and the Fourth of July concert, Beethoven’s Ninth, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, no less, all in the coming weeks.

The fact that these fine singers distinguished themselves with technical polish and expressive depth in such a challenging program is a testament to their artistry and versatility—as well as the yeoman work of chorus director Christopher Bell in building this ensemble to its present high standard.

Bill McGlaughlin was the master of ceremonies for the evening. The host of WFMT’s Exploring Music provided folksy asides and impromptu interaction and exchanges with Bell and the singers, which were sometimes illuminating, sometimes awkward, and occasionally bizarre, as with his requests to encore passages of works that were just performed. The funniest, albeit inadvertent moment of the evening came when after one of McGlaughlin’s discursive monologues, he asked if Bell had noted a similarity to the work just performed and another obscure piece, to which Bell candidly replied, “I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening to what you were saying.”

 But it was the Grant Park Chorus that was the main reason for the evening, and the singers shone in an intelligent and discerning program that avoided the usual hits and patriotic treacle. 

Morten Lauridsen’s O magnum mysterium has been a mainstay of the sacred choral repertory for decades, yet it was good to hear another of this gifted composer’s works. His Nocturnes, written in 2005, are  cast in three movements, set to poems by Rilke, Neruda and James Agee. The varied night themes are painted in Lauridsen’s characteristic style of long overlapping lines, with a melodic richness and guileless emotional directness that are striking in our era of postmodern cynicism. The central extended Neruda setting was especially moving and Bell drew a soaring and radiant performance from his singers.

Christopher Bell, Grant Park Chorus Director

Aaron Copland’s Four Motets are early works, hailing from his student days in Paris.  The influence of his teacher, Boulanger, looms large in the first movement and the third sounds like an academic exercise written under duress.  Still, the Copland to come is palpable in the second and fourth settings, which display some of the composer’s burgeoning dynamism and rhythmic audacity, and were sung with great gusto by the chorus.

It had to happen but leave it to Paul Crabtree, one of our most inventive and wickedly witty composers, to come up with a choral work based on The Simpsons.  Crabtree’s Five Romantic Miniatures from The Simpsons are great fun with the emphasis on uneuphonic hard consonants (“Marge, you make the best pork chops”)  yet manage a surprising degree of genuine tenderness, particularly in Homer’s sincere closing words of love to Marge. Bell and the singers managed to put across the humor and feeling while maintaining composure and tonal refinement.

John Corligliano’s early L’invitation au voyage is a lovely setting of Baudelaire (in Richard Wilbur’s superb English translation) yet challenging in its rapid key changes and exposed passages. Bell’s singers provided seamless flow to the long phrases and assayed an extraordinary degree of nuanced colors and dynamic shading.

In Barber’s setting of Sure On this Shining Night—the same Agee verse set by Lauridsen in the third of his Nocturnes—-the Grant Park Chorus delivered a beautifully sung and deeply felt performance.  The evening closed with Steven Sametz’s buoyant (and apt) I Have Had Singing, rounding off a program that, as Bell noted, proved that there is more than one first-class chorus in Chicago.

The program will be repeated 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Harris Theater and aired live on WFMT-98.7 FM.;  312-742-7638

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