From Mozart to Martinů, Christopher Bell relishes the versatility of the Grant Park Chorus

Thu Jun 30, 2016 at 1:34 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Christopher Bell will lead the National Youth Choir of Scotland in Grant Park Music Festival concerts July 4 and 5.
Christopher Bell will lead the National Youth Choir of Scotland in Grant Park Music Festival concerts July 4 and 5. File photo: Norman Timonera

In a city generously stocked with fine choral groups, Chicago’s 110-voice Grant Park Chorus is among the best. Founded in 1944 as the vocal partner of the Grant Park Orchestra, its outdoor performances have added the mighty thunder of blockbusters like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Brahms’s A German Requiem to the cacophony of summer nights in downtown Chicago.

But the chorus’s repertoire has always included the new and unusual, and this summer’s classical offerings, chosen by Carlos Kalmar, the orchestra’s principal conductor and artistic director, and Christopher Bell, director of the chorus, continues that pattern. In addition to Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor August 5-6 and a concert version of Berlioz’s opera The Damnation of Faust August 19-20, the chorus’s 2016 season includes Book of Proverbs, a delicately wrought piece from 1996 by American composer Michael Torke performed during the festival’s opening week. And this weekend the festival offers two rarities: The Golden Spinning Wheel, an orchestral piece by Dvorak inspired by a gruesome Central European fairy tale, and Bohuslav Martinů’s The Epic of Gilgamesh, a 1958 oratorio for narrator, chorus, soloists and orchestra based on the ancient Sumerian tale of a powerful king in conflict with the gods.

“We like to have something classical, and that’s the Mozart,” said Bell, the lively Irish-born Scotsman who is currently marking his 15th season as chorus director. “And we’ll have something of a barn-burner to close the season,” he said referring to The Damnation of Faust.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is an entirely different kind of piece.

“There’s usually something fairly kooky and way out each summer, and this year it’s The Epic of Gilgamesh,” said Bell. “Patrons will remember The Book with Seven Seals. Maybe they’ll be trying to forget; I don’t really know,” he added with a mischievous smile, referring to the massive oratorio by Austrian composer Franz Schmidt that Kalmar conducted in 2011. Despite Kalmar’s heartfelt conducting, it was a heavy slog even for Grant Park’s loyal, open-minded audience.

Bell believes Martinů’s oratorio, set to an English text, will be easier for listeners to digest.

Gilgamesh is really very extraordinary music by Martinů,” he said. “It has an extraordinarily complex and rich harmonic palette. For an audience who attends classical music concerts regularly, there’s nothing terrifying here. It has very interesting colors, harmonic shapes. It’s very exciting stuff, telling this historic tale in a very dramatic way.”

Martinů set his music to an English text, discovering too late that a translation of the Gilgamesh story existed in his native Czech. Set in three sections and running just under an hour, the oratorio has been performed in various languages, but Kalmar wanted to use Martinů’s English-language original.

“I will say that the English text is a bit clunky, and that’s a very generous way to describe it,” Bell admitted. “There are one or two moments when you’ll have to stifle a titter. But we wanted the audience to kind of get it. We didn’t want to sing it in Czech and have people reading their program books trying to work out where they were.”

Like Kalmar, Bell is fully committed to scheduling music beyond classical music’s greatest hits.

“The Grant Park Festival has prided itself in seeking out repertoire that we think is great repertoire that doesn’t get an opportunity to be heard,” he said. “That can frequently be America-led; we’re an American festival in an American city. Carlos lives in America and is music director of an American orchestra (the Oregon Symphony based in Portland). It’s our responsibility. But we don’t do it because somebody put a gun to our head. And Carlos is also a European, as, indeed, am I.”

During the festival’s off-season, Kalmar and Bell send each other suggestions for choral repertoire.  They exchange comments and eventually settle on the three or four choral works for upcoming seasons plus a pop concert or two.  A major element in their calculations is the chorus’s impressive ability to rapidly learn new repertoire ranging from Broadway show tunes to rarities like Gilgamesh.

“For Broadway concerts, we have one rehearsal,” said. Bell. “Our choristers are experienced enough and quick and sharp enough that they’ll pick up that repertoire very quickly. Some of the other concerts will have three rehearsals, and most will get four.

“[Chorus members] are welcome to pick up the music as soon as they sign their contracts for the year. Some of them do. The Grant Park Chorus is recruited for their ability to read at sight, to slice through repertoire, and to get very far along the way very quickly.  Most of them pick up the music at the first rehearsal. We crack open the score, and there we go.”

Bell’s Grant Park schedule also includes conducting the festival’s annual Independence Day concerts that draw SRO crowds to Pritzker Pavilion. He plunges into the programs of Sousa marches and patriotic American music with gusto, offering witty spoken commentary and delighting the audience with outfits that drape his small frame in outrageous displays of the U.S. stars and stripes. This season’s program book includes a photo of Bell wearing a star-studded baseball cap and flashing a T-shirt emblazoned with Chicago’s red-white-and-blue, four-star logo under a jacket dripping with stars. 

Christopher Bell leads a previous July 4 concert. File photo: Norman Timonera
Christopher Bell leads a previous July 4 concert. File photo: Norman Timonera

For this year’s Independence Day concert–taking place Monday, July 4–his onstage colleagues will be the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra and the National Youth Choir of Scotland, an ensemble he helped found in 1996. The choir grew out of Bell’s work with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra Chorus. Joining that organization in 1989, he was dismayed at the dearth of well-trained singers who auditioned.

“A bit of research,” Bell said, “led me to find that singing had gone off the agenda in a lot of schools. There was a lot of instrumental work and keyboard work, but not a lot of singing. Because of that, we were losing a generation or two who didn’t have much singing experience. So the answer to that was to try and create a national youth chorus.”

Since then, the National Youth Choir of Scotland has become the center of a wide national network of choirs and singing programs for children ranging from toddlers through college students. Chosen by audition, the choir’s 110 members, most between ages 20 and 26, gather each summer for a week of intensive rehearsal followed by tours that have taken them beyond Scotland to Germany and the U.S.

Their summer tour this year includes performances at Garfield Park on July 5 and the Chicago Cultural Center’s Dame Myra Hess series on July 6. Then the choir and Bell travel to the Grand Teton Festival in Jackson Hole, Wyoming for two performances, including Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony conducted by the festival’s music director, Donald Runnicles.

But first comes the Grant Park’s annual July 4th extravaganza. The repertoire will include some Scottish songs in honor of the guest choir, and Bell promises that his outfit will be even more star-spangled than in previous years.

“It’s not making fun,” said Bell, referring to his Uncle Sam get-ups. “It’s having fun.” 

Carlos Kalmar conducts the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus in Dvořák’s The Golden Spinning Wheel and Martinů’s The Epic of Gilgamesh 6:30 p.m Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Pritzker Pavilion.

Christopher Bell conducts the National Youth Choir of Scotland and the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras in an Independence Day program 6:30 p.m. Monday, July 4 at the Pritzker Pavilion. Bell also leads the National Youth Choir of Scotland in a program 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Garfield Park Conservatory. 

Bell and the Grant Park Chorus will present a program of Shakespeare settings 3 p.m. July 24 at the Columbus Park Refectory and 7 p.m. July 26 at the South Shore Cultural Center.

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