Grant Park Chorus offers stunning artistry in contemporary program

Fri Jul 18, 2014 at 11:27 am

By John Y. Lawrence

Christopher Bell led the Grant Park Chorus in a concert Thursday night at the South Shore Cultural Center.
Christopher Bell led the Grant Park Chorus in a concert Thursday night at the South Shore Cultural Center.

On Thursday night, the Grant Park Chorus performed a program dubbed “Choral Splendor,”an apt title given the stunning display of artistry exhibited in this concert of (mostly) contemporary a cappella works.  One may hear this music sung with equal power or precision, but almost certainly never before with both.

If conducted by lesser hands (and sung by lesser voices), this program could have been monotonous. Four of the first five selections—John Tavener’s Funeral Ikos and The Lamb and two of James MacMillan’s Strathclyde Motets—draw upon a similar reserve of harmonic and vocal techniques, and the Funeral Ikos is a repetitive piece.

Chorus director Christopher Bell and the Grant Park Chorus dodged any pitfalls at South Shore Cultural Center by artfully varying their sound within and across the pieces. The performance of the Funeral Ikos, which opened the concert, explored a wide range of sonorities among its verses, growing from gentle chanting to assertive declamation over the course of the piece. By way of contrast, their performance of MacMillan’s In splendoribus sanctorum (joined by trumpeter David Gordon) was trancelike in its placidity.

Most of this music is normally sung by much smaller ensembles. The most extraordinary thing about the Grant Park Chorus’s performances was that they lost nothing in nimbleness and clarity and gained all of the power and dynamic range of a large choir.

This was particularly evident in the performance of Eric Whitacre’s Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine. The composer has performed and recorded this piece with the leaner sound that you might expect in this homage to Montiverdi’s madrigal style. The Grant Park Chorus’s performance transformed this piece from a madrigal into something closer to an oratorio. It was a dramatic tour de force: from the imposing intonation of Leonardo’s name at the opening, to the voices of the floating angels, to the sound of the winds lifting Leonardo and his machine, which seemed to envelop the entire hall at the piece’s close.

After the austerity of the Tavener and Macmillan pieces, Abbie Betinis’ whimsical Toward Sunshine, Toward Freedom: Songs of Smaller Creatures was a welcome contrast. This piece bookended her introspective setting of Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider” with more pictorial settings of Walter De La Mare’s “The Bee Song” (a poem filled with the constant buzzing of the letter “Z”) and Algernon Swinburne’s “Envoi” (describing the flight of a flock of butterflies). Betinis’s musical depictions of the buzzing bees and the flapping wings of the butterflies are sophisticated rather than simplistic or cartoonish, and the chorus did justice to this with their equally intricate renderings.

The concert concluded with two short vocal works by Tchaikovsky and a recent work called The Flame by Ben Parry (whom Bell wryly noted is a rival choirmaster of his, back in the UK). Like Betinis’ piece, all three of these works offered ample opportunities for text-painting, which Bell and the chorus seized with taste and sensitivity.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday at the Columbus Park Refectory.

Posted in Performances

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