Kalmar, Grant Park forces soar in Janáček’s “Glagolitic Mass”

Sat Jun 28, 2014 at 2:17 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Soprano Christine Goerke was among the soloists in Leos Janacek;s "Glagolitic Mass' performed Friday night at the Grant Park Music Festival.
Soprano Christine Goerke was among the soloists in Leoš Janáček’s “Glagolitic Mass” performed Friday night at the Grant Park Music Festival. Photo: Norman Timonera

No local music organization can match the Grant Park Music Festival for audacity and adventurousness in programming. And, in fact, these days few even seem to be trying.

Just three weeks into the summer season, and Chicago’s lakefront festival has already brought rarities by Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, and Elgar to local audiences. This weekend, Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus served up yet another with Leoš Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, performed Friday at the Pritzker Pavilion.

The Czech composer’s Mša glagolskaja was written quickly even by Janáček’s speedy standard in just three weeks in 1926. The mass is scored for huge forces (four soloists, double chorus, organ and large orchestra) and unorthodox in its arch-like structure: two movements for orchestra alone frame the mass, the central Credo (Veruju) is twice as long as any other movement, and the penultimate section is an extended organ solo.

Though the text, written in Old Church Slavonic, largely follows the traditional Catholic liturgy, the devotional aspect is less manifest in the agonostic composer’s handling of the music than the feel of Slavic nationalism. This is music of dark roiling drama as intense as anything in Janáček’s operas. The pungent, primeval folk quality and intensely chromatic writing for brass, organ and percussion at times seem like a Moravian manifesto, a kind of Slavonic Rite of Spring.

These big works bring out the best in Kalmar and the Grant Park musicians, and so it proved again Friday night. Kalmar underlined the bracing, somewhat unsettling mix of the pagan and pious with a performance of thrusting urgency. There was daunting power in the jagged brass and percussion playing as well as a plaintive quality to the woodwinds that fitfully sounded a searching spiritual quality.

The performance benefited from an excellent quartet of soloists led by Christine Goerke. Acclaimed for her Elektra at Lyric Opera in 2012—she will also be the company’s Brunnhilde in Lyric’s next Ring cycle—-Goerke was terrific, singing with a clarity and big, resplendent soprano that made the amplification redundant. The Chinese bass Shenyang made an equally impressive showing at the opposite end, singing with warm rounded tone and striking ease of production.

Jill Grove had less to do but her strong mezzo was ever-reliable in her brief opportunities. Garrett Sorenson’s singing proved a bit strenuous Friday and while he sang with imposing tone and febrile intensity, the amplification made his tenor sound rather strident in the high tessitura.

Under the direction of Christopher Bell, the Grant Park Chorus delivered superbly in their finest performance of the summer to date, tackling the Slavonic text with great clarity and idiomatic fervor.

The amplified portable organ was a necessary compromise and while it brought sufficient heft and sonic ballast, David Schrader’s rather cautious traversal of the extended Gothic organ solo failed to deliver the sense of climactic virtuosity. The Grant Park Orchestra, however, was fully committed and put across fiery and massively projected playing under Kalmar’s direction.

Haydn remains the most inexplicably neglected of the great composers, so kudos to Kalmar for including his Symphony No. 98 on the first half.

Haydn’s cheerful bonhomie is well suited to al fresco summer music-making and so it proved Friday. Kalmar let a stylish and witty reading, Classical in scale, yet with weight to the opening introduction and a buoyant lift to the ensuing Allegro. The Adagio went with flowing grace and the trio of the minuet had an apt rustic air, albeit accompanied by a non-rustic siren.

The finale offers one of Haydn’s most delightfully insouciant themes, and Kalmar was fully in synch with the light-hearted spirit, even half-turning and shrugging to the audience at the melody’s repeat as if to say, “Yep, this little tune is it, folks.” All the jokey false endings made their impact not least the brief (and only) appearance of a solo harpsichord in the final bars, likely a private Haydn joke lost to history. The Grant Park Orchestra showed themselves an inspired Haydn band, especially the nimble strings with concertmaster Jeremy Black contributing superbly in his solo moments.

The evening began with another rarity, Samuel Barber’s Fadograph of a Yestern Scene. Despite the James Joyce title and inspiration, this concise orchestral miniature—written in 1971 for the Pittsburgh Symphony’s inauguration of Heinz Hall—is pure Barber in its moonlit nocturnal languor. The amplification bestowed an intermittent harshness on the high winds yet, that apart, Kalmar led a luminous and evocative rendering.

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

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