Kalmar leads Grant Park forces in engaging premiere, majestic Mozart

Sat Aug 06, 2016 at 2:45 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Michael Gandolfi's "The Cosmic Garden in Bloom" was heard in its world premiere Friday night at the Grant Park Music Festival.
Michael Gandolfi’s “The Cosmic Garden in Bloom” was heard in its world premiere Friday night at the Grant Park Music Festival.

The final weeks of this summer’s Grant Park Music Festival are providing an exemplar of what Carlos Kalmar and his musicians do best. Next Wednesday offers a pair of rarely heard American symphonies by Roy Harris and Walter Piston. And Friday night’s program at the Pritzker Pavilion provided a colorful premiere as well as a soaring performance of a Mozart mass featuring the Grant Park Chorus.

The evening led off with The Cosmic Garden in Bloom by Michael Gandolfi, the sole world premiere of this summer’s festival. Four years ago, Kalmar and company premiered Gandolfi’s Only Converge: An Exaltation of Place, commissioned for the lakefront festival’s 50th anniversary. 

The Cosmic Garden in Bloom is less ambitious than that civic-minded work but more successful, showing the American composer’s accessible, smartly scored style at its most engaging. The festival commission is the latest installment of Gandolfi’s ongoing project, The Garden of Cosmic Speculation.

In 2004, Gandolfi visited the titular grounds, a sprawling 30-acre garden in Scotland designed by architect Charles Jencks. The composer was intrigued by Jencks’ unique inspiration for his vast designs–equal parts metaphysics and shrubbery. The result, Gandolfi’s Garden of Cosmic Speculation spans 11 movements running over 70 minutes based on various aspects of Jencks’ garden. (Counterintuitively in this complete-set era, Gandolfi encourages conductors to explore the work much as one would a garden itself, selecting individual movements and arranging them in any order one fancies.)

The latest addition, The Cosmic Garden in Bloom, is cast in two unbroken parts. The first section, “Octagonia,” was inspired by  Jencks’ eight-sided library, the numeric guise reflected in all 29 possible eight-note scales and various other manifestations.

If that sounds dry and mathematical, the results are anything but, and Gandolfi’s music is wholly delightful, the composer deftly handling eight separate motives in this thematically rich work. As with the previous installments of The Garden of Cosmic Speculation, Gandolfi’s bivalved creation is exhilarating, approachable and skillfully orchestrated. 

“Octagonia” starts with a sweet descending theme for violins set against an ominous bass tread, and the canonic feel remains prominent throughout. A sprightly theme for winds is taken high by trumpets segueing into a fugue. The descending motto moves to high winds set off by tolling chimes and followed by a chorale-like statement for horns. The tempo accelerates and becomes more exuberant as the brass chorale moves into a gleaming, timpani-accented major against scurrying strings (reminiscent of the conclusion of Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra). The somber string theme returns and grows softer, ending “Octagonia” on a quietly ruminative coda.

The shorter concluding section, “The Comet Bridge” jolts with a quick attaca burst of acceleration. Inspired by a steel footbridge at the entrance to Jencks’ garden, there is a flavor of Russian Futurist style in the punchy percussion and driving mechanistic style. In the final bars the finale of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony hovers nearby, as the machine spins out of control, leading to an emphatic coda.

One couldn’t imagine a finer sendoff than the vital and full-blooded performance served up by Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra Friday night, which allowed all of Gandolfi’s kaleidoscopic scoring to register. The composer was warmly applauded by the audience.

Like his celebrated Requiem, Mozart’s Mass in C minor was never completed. Yet the music that what we have of K.427 is so magnificent that the work stands among his finest vocal creations even as an unfinished torso.

The mass is often performed in one of the various “completed” versions by other hands. In his charming, user-friendly introduction, Kalmar said that the evening’s performance would only perform those sections finished by Mozart, rightly noting that the Benedictus that concludes the existing score is so glorious it need not require any spurious additions.

The rousing, uplifting performance indeed made a strong and eloquent case for performing the Mass in C minor as it stands. Mozart was exploring works of his Baroque predecessors at the time of its composition, and the sensitive and fully idiomatic direction by Kalmar consistently underlined those elements–Bach in the  contrapuntal complexity and Handel in the majestic choruses.

The vocal quartet was largely inspired. Soprano Janai Brugger brought vocal radiance and star power to her moments in the sun, handling the tortuous coloratura of the Laudamus te with flexibility and security.

Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi’s high soprano blended gratefully with Brugger’s darker tone in the Domine Deus. But while her singing was dedicated, Mkhwanazi’s phrasing in her Christie eleison solo proved choppy and segmented. Likewise in the Et incarnatus est–the most rarefied music in the mass–the Ryan Opera Center member sang literally with little feeling for the text, as if cautiously performing a vocal exercise. (The eloquent and expressive playing of the Grant Park winds in the aria was beyond reproach.)

The male soloists have less to do in this work and these small assignments were taken with fine assurance by two members of the chorus. Hoss Brock, looking like a Biblical patriarch with his ample white beard, brought a strong, agile tenor to the trio of the Quoniam tu solus sanctus. In his only appearance Daniel Eifert’s imposing yet flexible bass added heft to the quartet of the Benedictus.

The playing of the Grant Park Orchestra was first-class throughout with notably clarion brass. Yet as is so often the case at the lakefront festival, the Grant Park Chorus members were the stars of the evening. Under Christopher Bell’s direction, the chorus members delivered their finest performance of the summer to date–tonally refined, scrupulously blended yet with the divided writing clear and distinct.

At Kalmar’s lively tempo, the Gloria soared with wonderful exuberance. The dark pleading of  the Qui tollis was surely conveyed and the five-part writing in the Credo was always distinct and crisply enunciated. There was no sense of anticlimax with the Benedictus quite beautifully sung by the quartet and the choral reprise of the Hosanna ending the performance and the evening on a joyous note.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday. gpmf.org

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