Slack final concert leaves Grant Park Music Festival outside the gates of Elgar’s “Kingdom”

Sat Aug 22, 2015 at 11:32 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Sir Edward Elgar’s “The Kingdom” was performed Friday night at the Grant Park Music Festival.

One had great expectations for the Grant Park Music Festival’s final program this weekend, featuring Sir Edward Elgar’s 1906 oratorio The Kingdom. Carlos Kalmar has shown himself a sure and stylish Elgarian, with a dramatic Dream of Gerontius in 2009 and an eloquent performance of the Symphony No. 1 last year. And with a strong lineup of vocal soloists and the Grant Park Chorus in fine fettle all summer, this first festival performance of Elgar’s epic oratorio in 35 years seemed a sure bet.

Alas, it was not to be. Despite some inspired moments Friday night’s slack and unfocused performance stubbornly refused to cohere into a convincing whole, ending a great summer of downtown music on a disappointing note.

Give Kalmar and the lakefront series credit for tackling this rarely performed work, especially in an era when other summer music festivals are content with pops concerts and accompanied film scores.

The third and final of his three spiritual oratorios, The Kingdom is less frequently heard than the English composer’s other two works in the genre, Gerontius and The Apostles. Yet for some, The Kingdom—which follows the lives of Jesus’s apostles and ends with a massive choral setting of the Lord’s Prayer—is the most musically consistent of the three works. Sir Adrian Boult, one of Elgar’s most dedicated podium advocates, considered The Kingdom not only Elgar’s most accomplished oratorio but his finest work of all.

It’s unlikely that anyone came away from the Pritzker Pavilion with that impression Friday night. There are undoubted musical highlights. The orchestral Prelude that opens the work is fully characteristic, with its surging, sumptuous main theme and heart-easing contrasting melody.

Yet even for committed Elgarians, The Kingdom also has more than a few dull and musty patches that reflect some of the hoarier pieties of the Victorian choral tradition. The sections of the text emphasizing the guilt of the Jewish people for Jesus’s crucifixion are unlikely to win any awards for ecumenical bridge-building either.

Perhaps the tepid performance was a case of cumulative fatigue, after playing two complex programs a week for the past two months on extremely short rehearsal time. Whatever the case, this Kingdom felt cautious and tentative, more like a promising rehearsal than a finished performance.

The repeated distraction of low-flying helicopters hovering over the lakefront and buzzing the Pritzker Pavilion didn’t help matters. Isn’t Millennium Park supposed to be a no-fly zone during performances? Why is this continuing to happen?

The four vocal soloists were largely accomplished. As the Virgin Mary, soprano Erin Wall delivered the highlight of the evening with a radiant and impassioned rendering of the score’s most famous excerpt, “The sun goeth down.” Mezzo Jill Grove (Mary Magdalene)  brought some much-needed dramatic urgency with “And suddenly there came from heaven.”

Alfred Walker was a strong and authoritative Peter, though at times one wanted more sonorous ballast in the declamatory pages of this prominent role. Tenor Garrett Sorenson was a clear and forceful John.

After several superb outings this summer, the Grant Park Chorus, prepared by Donald Nally, turned in a surprisingly weak performance. While the final sections went with greater splendor and dramatic impact, for most of the evening choral singing was tentative and underprojected. The English text was often indecipherable, so much so that the chorus members may as well have been singing in the original Aramaic.

The Grant Park Orchestra’s playing was more polished and committed yet overall this was not one of the festival’s finer nights. Let’s hope Saturday’s repeat shows greater grip and incisiveness, and–minus the helicopters–concludes a stellar summer music season on a more positive note.

Elgar’s The Kingdom will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

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