Grant Park Festival serves up buoyant performance of “The Seasons”

Sat Aug 11, 2012 at 2:41 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Haydn’s “The Seasons” was performed Friday night at the Pritzker Pavilion.

The meteorological gods must have a sense of humor.

After a summer in which audiences at the Grant Park Music Festival endured godless humidity, the festival had its coolest night of the summer Friday with high winds taking the temperature down to the brisk 60s, which had the lakefront faithful breaking out their jackets. So, with the first hint of autumn in the air, it seemed appropriate that the evening’s sole work was, Haydn’s The Seasons.

Haydn’s late oratorio is especially well suited to outdoor music-making as was made clear at Friday’s performance at the Pritzker Pavilion. Unlike his other, more dramatic oratorio, The Creation, one senses here a relaxed, contented Papa Haydn, the composer looking back with satisfaction and spiritual gratitude on his long, successful career, even throwing in a few jokes and quotations, as with a riff from his own Surprise symphony.

The Seasons reflects a kind of Christian pantheism, a celebration of nature and manifestations of the evolving climes from spring through winter. While there is no unfolding dramatic scenario as such, the three soloists portray a trio of rustic folk, Hanne, Lukas and Simon, who sing of the country pleasures and fleeting dangers of the changing seasons.

One doesn’t think of Carlos Kalmar as a natural in Haydn and there were times early in the evening when some of the score’s charm and humor felt a bit underplayed. But Grant Park’s principal conductor delivered a vital and firmly pointed performance that brought out all the myriad beauties and imaginative scoring, drawing wonderfully characterful playing by the Grant Park Orchestra, as with the winds’ musical onomatopoeia and the majestic horns in the hunting chorus.

Layla Claire

The performance benefited from a superb trio of soloists, of which Layla Claire was the standout. The Canadian soprano, who made her festival debut in Dvorak’s Requiem two years ago, sang with bright, resplendent tone and expressive nuance, as in her summer aria, What a haven for the weary, and brought a piquant light charm to her winter folk song with chorus, An innocent and lovely maid. Claire, a former Lindemann Young Artist at the Met, is the real thing and should soon be enjoying a major opera career.

Tenor Benjamin Butterfield sounded a bit dry toned and tentative at the start of the evening, yet soon warmed up. The Canadian tenor’s precise enunciation made every work crystal-clear—admittedly a mixed blessing in this English translation—and brought a vibrant, plangent timbre to his solos, most impressively in A traveler stands there. Bass Ben Wager was less individual than his colleagues but sang well with a dark, resonant voice.

The chorus was clearly well prepared by guest chorus conductor William Jon Gray. Best known locally for his work with Music of the Baroque, Gray drew lithe, well balanced and buoyant ensemble singing. The great fugal passages had ample excitement and the closing chorus made the requisite majestic coda.

The Seasons will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Pritzker Pavilion.

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