Weather chills, but performances warm up Grant Park Music Festival

Sat Jun 20, 2015 at 2:25 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Kenji Bunch's Symphony No. 3 "Dream Songs" had its world premiere Friday night at the Grant Park Music Festival.
Kenji Bunch’s Symphony No. 3 “Dream Songs” had its world premiere Friday night at the Grant Park Music Festival.

So much for global warming.

The Grant Park Music Festival audience encountered its first al fresco challenge of the summer Friday night with temperatures plunging down to the 50s. A consistent strong wind made the lakefront feel even colder than that, and the exposed Pritzker Pavilion was downright chilly. There were more empty seats than usual, and many less hardy patrons bailed at intermission, but those who stayed to the end were amply rewarded.

We can go months without an orchestral world premiere in Chicago, and then get two on consecutive nights. Mason Bates’ Anthology of Fantastic Zoology had its debut Thursday by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Friday night Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra presented the premiere of Kenji Bunch’s Symphony No. 3 “Dream Songs.”

The sole festival commission of this summer, Bunch’s choral symphony is drawn on Native American texts. The composer incorporates English translations (largely by Frances Densmore) of writings from the Sioux, Pawnee, Arapaho, Navajo, Chippewa and Ojibwa tribes. Though Bunch’s program note refers to the native cultures being “decimated by a century of brutal state-sponsored oppression and terror,” the symphony itself avoids victimization cliches, letting the hardscrabble poetry of the stark, plain words speak powerfully for itself.

Spanning 33 minutes and three movements, the symphony forms a dramatic arc. The first section, “Songs of Anxiety and Unrest” begins in an expectant atmosphere of impressionistic mystery, as male, then female voices sing overlapping lines on a Sioux text of nocturnal roaming. The tutti voices burst forward in the ensuing “Dream Song” setting (“It is I who whisper in the breeze”), the massed voices making an imposing impact against swirling stings and timpani.

Part Two is concerned with “Songs of War and its Aftermath” with four texts concentrating on battle and warlike fervor. The final section “Prayer of Healing” is drawn from just a single Navajo prayer.

Bunch’s symphony is scored with impressive skill, showing keen facility in the divided choral writing and a fine ear for varied color and timbres, with effective use of harp and percussion.

Yet in the early going, the work has a rather segmented feeling, offering inspired moments but with the longer sections failing to cohere. The device of alternating somber static music and sudden choral outbursts feels over-utilized in the second movement. And at times there is a stiff formality and ceremonial feel to the music that recall some of the drier American patriotic choral paeans of the mid-20th century.

The best music comes after the halfway point with the swelling of women’s voices in “Only the Earth Endures,” and their deep lamentation for their heroes (“Where the Fight Was”) that echoes Prokofiev’s “Field of the Dead” section from Alexander Nevsky.

The final section of “Prayer of Healing” offers the most inspired music. The rising voices and orchestra ascend to an almost cinematic luxuriant richness before quietening to a shimmering bittersweet coda.

Bunch’s symphony could hardly have wanted for stronger or more compelling advocacy in its premiere. Beautifully prepared by Christopher Bell, the singing of the Grant Park Chorus was rich-toned and glorious, with crystalline clarity of words throughout. Under Kalmar’s focused and flexible direction, the orchestra playing was on the same high level, the musicians maintaining admirable concentration even with what sounded like a loud weed-whacker coming from the east side of the park.

The Bunch premiere was preceded by a lithe and spirited rendition of the Overture to Mozart’s Magic Flute, with Kalmer giving solemn weight to the Masonic chords.

The cold night made an apt milieu for a Russian work and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6 was heard after intermission.

Kalmar has a sure, idiomatic feel for Shostakovich, and Friday’s superb and incisive performance provided an early highlight of the young summer season. The vast opening Largo was put across with taut concentration and richly spun string tone (sustained despite a noisy low-flying helicopter). Kalmar and the players conveyed the baleful power and bleak desolation, the Grant Park woodwinds sounding a human note in their fragile, searching solo lines. Kalmar drew an impressively wide and terraced dynamic range with the strings at the coda hovering on the edge of audibility.

The acerbic quality of the jokey middle movement provided apt contrast with a nicely satiric piccolo. The Presto finale rounded off the work in hard-charging style, Kalmar putting across the aggressive galumphing energy without neglecting the ironic quality of this hectic burlesque.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m, Saturday at the Pritzker Paviliom.

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