Bell, Grant Park Chorus get to the heart of the matter in South Shore

Wed Jul 22, 2015 at 12:09 pm

By John Y. Lawrence

Christopher Bell led the Grant Park Chorus Tuesday night at the South Shore Cultural Center.
Christopher Bell led the Grant Park Chorus Tuesday night at the South Shore Cultural Center.

The Grant Park Music Festival returned to the South Shore Cultural Center Tuesday night with chorus director Christopher Bell leading the Grant Park Chorus in a program titled “Songs from the Heart.”

The evening began dramatically with Kenneth Leighton’s antiphonal Laudate Pueri, for which the chorus divided into three groups, positioned in different places throughout the hall. The versatile chorus can exploit a wide range of sonorities, and for this rousing opening, their sound was full and appropriately trumpet-like.

Five selections followed from Stephen Paulus’s The Lotus Lovers, which sets 4th-century Chinese poetry by Tzu Yeh.  Paulus’s music was the most texturally varied of the evening, and the singers responded beautifully to Paulus’s mercurial mood-shifting. Especially notable was  the sudden transition from percussive syncopation to plaintive lyricism in the final setting, “A Rich Brocade”.

The concert included performances of two songs by the young Irish composer Seán Doherty, who was in attendance.

Doherty’s Et Clamabant was heard in its U.S. premiere. The work begins with a monophonic rendition of the 12th-century title chant, segueing into  a polyphonal structure by fragmenting and manipulating the theme. The chorus’s performance was aptly monastic-sounding at the opening and transparent in the polyphonic sections.

Three songs by Sibelius were heard: “Sydämeni laulu” (“Song of My Heart”), Sortunut ääni (“The Broken Voice”), and the familiar “Finlandia.” Perhaps due to Bell’s prefatory remarks—in which he spoke of the intense grief behind “Sydämeni laulu” (a song for the death of a child) and the patriotic passion that inflames “Finlandia”—the performances felt oddly restrained. Without the text in hand, one might not have known that they were meant to express such deep emotions.

Also in attendance at the concert was composer Douglas Cuomo, whose “Kyrie” from And On Earth, Peace: A Chanticleer Mass was also featured. After the choir whispers the words “Kyrie eleison”, the piece begins with a closely-packed chord accumulating one note at a time. With lesser singers, such an opening could create a tuning nightmare, but the device came off well, as did the chorus’ rendering of Cuomo’s theatrical effects.

William Hawley’s Four Reveries proved a very different animal from the other pieces on the program. These settings of poems by Christina Rossetti, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Browning are more linear and imitative, with clear melodies that are almost Romantic in style overlapping each other in waves. It takes keen balancing to allow each entrance to sound clearly and each word of the text to be heard, and Bell and the chorus managed this admirably.

The penultimate piece was also by Doherty, a carol titled “Blessed Be That Maid Marie.” Similar to the Irish composer’s other work, it relies on repetition to generate polyphonic dialogue. Fortunately, the chorus invested their performance of this song with a buoyancy that helped to distinguish it from its counterpart.

Bell and the Grant Park Chorus closed the concert with a Christmas-y touch: a warm, rich performance of Morten Lauridsen’s Magnum Mysterium. After the applause died down, Bell admitted that he couldn’t resist adding a bit of Eric Whitacre to the concert, and so concluded the evening with Whitacre’s “Lux Aurumque” as an encore.

This program will be repeated 7 p.m. Thursday at the Columbus Park Refectory.


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