Powerful MacMillan and Schubert highlight Grant Park concert

Sat Aug 10, 2013 at 1:17 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

James MacMillan’s “The Confession of Isobel Gowdie” was performed Friday night by Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra.

The draw for the thousands who assembled Friday night in Millennium Park was likely the chance to hear the Grant Park Chorus join their orchestral colleagues in Schubert’s epic Mass in E flat. And while the Schubert performance was indeed a fine one, the music of James MacMillan made at least an equal impact.

The evening began with two works, which, in their different ways, depict roiling spiritual drama.

Written in 1930, Les Offrandes Oubliees (The Forgotten Offerings), was Olivier Messiaen’s first work for orchestra and, even at 21, the French composer’s mature style is palpable in this 11-minute “Meditation symphonique.” A concise triptych on the passion of Jesus, the work depicts “The Cross,” “The Sin,” and “The Eucharist,” though Messiaen removed the titles from the published score.

Kalmar and the Grant Park musicians offered a rich-toned and deeply felt reading. The opening phrases could have been more rarefied, yet Kalmar drew luminous string textures in the outer movements, his patient yet acutely focused direction conveying the peaceful serenity of the concluding section. Kalmar and the orchestra brought a whipcrack intensity and vehemence to the central section, the jazzy syncopations showing that Messiaen likely had a surprising influence on Leonard Bernstein.

If Messiaen influenced Bernstein, it’s clear that Bernstein in turn, influenced James MacMillan, at least in part, as with the driving, sharply accented middle section of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie.

Along with his percussion concerto, Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, it was The Confession of Isobel Gowdie (1990) that brought the Scottish composer wide international attention. The tone poem was inspired by the 16th century persecution of Scottish women believed to be witches. (The real Isobel Gowdie confessed to being a witch and was strangled and burnt at the stake.)

MacMillan is a writer of strong, purposeful music, often reflecting his Roman Catholic faith, and Isobel Gowdie remains one of his finest works, a 20-minute orchestral tour de force, crafted with audacious skill and a distinctive voice.

The collision between elegiac contemplation and Gowdie’s horrific torture and execution are painted in bold strokes, all of which were delivered by Kalmar and the ensemble with bristling power and impact. The hushed opening section—which bears a passing resemblance to the “Dawn” prelude from Peter Grimes—sets radiant violin phrases against dissonant counterpoint, segueing into jagged, glowering brass fragments.

Kalmar pulled out all the stops in the section where the music builds to a strident climax punctuated by thirteen thunderous metallic chords, depicting Gowdie’s torture and confession. The ensuing music gathers in volume and intensity, set against the glowing benedictory string music from the opening, which temporarily quietens the surging chaos, until the work concludes in a massive shimmering crescendo.

The Grant Park musicians delivered one of their finest performances of the summer in this intensely challenging score and Kalmar and the orchestra received a prolonged and enthusiastic ovation. James MacMillan is a gifted composer too infrequently heard in Chicago and one who deserves to be better represented on local programs.

Written in the final year of his short life, Schubert’s Mass in E flat was his last work in the genre, and, as with his late piano sonatas and quartets, there is a decided dark edge to this score. Rarely has a setting of the traditional Latin mass offered such little respite from earthly woes; the bleak drama often sounds more like a Requiem and even the Gloria and Agnus Dei are haunted by dark shadows.

Schubert was a torch bearer at Beethoven’s funeral procession and the influence of his older contemporary is unmistakeable in the eruptive urgency and extreme dynamic contrasts.

Kalmar clearly sees this work as descending from Beethoven. At times the unceasing intensity and violent fury flirted with taking the work out of period, though the moments of spiritual reflection were sensitively rendered as well. The conductor also effectively underlined the forward-looking elements of Schubert’s writing, with the chugging accompaniment at the start of the Sanctus almost sounding like a pre-echo of 20th-century Minimalism.

Though the score calls for five soloists, Schubert’s use of them is profligate, with the singers only called upon for three brief passages, one for vocal trio and two for quartet. The soloists were all Ryan Opera Center members (soprano Emily Birsan, mezzo Julie Anne Miller, tenors John Irvin and Adam Bonnani and bass-baritone Richard Ollarsaba). Though solo voices could have been better blended, all acquitted themselves worthily, particularly Birsan and new Ryan member Ollarsaba.

But this mass is really the ensemble’s show and the Grant Park Chorus, well prepared by Christopher Bell, delivered magnificently. The chorus floated a velvety sonority in the opening Kyrie, and brought daunting power and clarity to the fugues, putting across the indomitable power of this gaunt and craggy work.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free. gpmf.org

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