Bell, Grant Park Chorus provide epicurean evening of French music

Wed Jul 07, 2010 at 1:22 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Christopher Bell led the Grant Park Chorus in a program of French music Tuesday night at the Harris Theater.

French culture has been profoundly influenced by two outwardly opposing but closely twined elements: the country’s deep vein of Roman Catholicism and its equally revered sensuality—not in a directly sexual way (usually) in music, but more in terms of its rich harmonies, melodic turns and jeweled refinement.

The program of French music offered by the Grant Park Chorus and director Christopher Bell Tuesday night at the Harris Theater served these dualistic Gallic qualities quite well. The program, to be repeated Thursday night, was notably short at exactly one hour. But, as with a French dinner, if the portions were small, the preparation, cooking and seasoning proved delicious with Bell’s witty introductions adding to the epicurean pleasures.

That the Grant Park singers have been honed into a first-rate ensemble over Bell’s nine-year tenure as chorus director was made manifest in the opening Two Choruses, Op. 68 by Saint-Saëns. Radiant and smoothly blended, the singers displayed notably refined tone in the nocturnal opening of Calme des nuits, opening up majestically at the sunburst of L’eclat du soleil. Likewise the singers brought great vitality to the second setting, Les fleurs et les arbes, a boisterous hymn to nature.

Durufle’s Four Motets on Gregorian Themes were written in 1960 but the composer’s retro brand of luxuriantly upholstered music could have been created a century earlier. The four gently contrasted sacred settings were directed with consummate skill by Bell, with the women nimbly handling the rhapsodic overlapping lines of Tota Pulchra es. The final motet, Tantum ergo Sacramentum was beautifully done with a gentle, glowing radiance.

The Trois Chansons after texts by Charles d’Orleans was Debussy’s only composition for unaccompanied chorus, yet the settings are crafted with such flair and individuality, it makes one wish he had written more in the genre. The singers conveyed the purity and maiden allure of Dieu! qu’il la fait bon regarder and brought great vehemence to the mock-denunciation of winter, Yver vous n’estes qu’un vilain. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Ponder proved a fine, flexible soloist in the central setting.

Few French composers’ religious devotion influenced their music more completely than Olivier Messiaen yet Messiaen wrote surprisingly few choral works. His O Sacrum Convivium is wholly characteristic its astringent twists allied to an intense spirituality, and Bell and the Grant Park singers brought out the quirky harmonics and spiritual repose with great technical gleam and sensitivity.

Poulenc’s Four Motets for Christmas may be an off-season choice, but proved delightful, the light-hearted—but not easy—writing carried off with apt bonhomie, particularly the leaping lines of the joyous finale, Hodie Christus natus est.

Wry, elegant and cynical, Ravel’s Trois Chansons could have been written by no one else. Bell’s singers vividly characterized the folkish text from the graceful skipping lines of the heartless Nicolette to the whiny “Hela!” of her prepubescent admirer. Susan Nelson displayed a lovely pure soprano and sang quite gloriously in the central Trois beaux oiseaux de Paradis. The entire chorus showed their colors in the bracing articulation and agility of the tongue-twisting satiric finale, Ronde.

The concert closed with two chansons by the largely forgotten 16th-century composer, Pierre Passereau. The first, Si vous la baisez comptez quinze, is a notably bawdy bit of country matters (“I’m from Northern Ireland, and I was shocked,” said Bell of the text) set to a rather gracefully diffident melody. The second is Passereau’s buoyant Il est bel est bon, favored closer of The King’s Singers, delivered here with comparable lilt and musicality. Bell repeated the King’s Singers trick of repeating it at twice the speed as an encore, which the Grant Park Chorus handled with impressive clarity and aplomb.

The program will be repeated 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Harris Theater.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Bell, Grant Park Chorus provide epicurean evening of French music”

  1. Posted Jul 08, 2010 at 6:08 am by Jasica

    Yes concert is really unforgettable.

  2. Posted Jul 09, 2010 at 8:55 am by Lauri

    The concert was amazing-yet another reason to go to Millennium Park as opposed to Ravinia…the knock-out chorus! Mr. Bell was entertaining and informative with his comments to the audience. Thank you!

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