Kalmar, Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus set sail with Vaughan Williams’ “Sea Symphony”

Sat Jun 17, 2017 at 2:46 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Baritone David John Pike and soprano Sara Jakubiak were the soloists in Ralph Vaughn Williams' "A Sea Symphony," performed Friday night at the Grant Park Music Festival. Photo; Fareine Suarez
Baritone David John Pike and soprano Sara Jakubiak were the soloists in Ralph Vaughn Williams’ “A Sea Symphony,” performed Friday night at the Grant Park Music Festival. Photo: Fareine Suarez

While music of Benjamin Britten gets semi-regular hearings in Chicago, Ralph Vaughan Williams hasn’t been so fortunate.

Carlos Kalmar arighted the balance nicely Friday night at the Grant Park Music Festival, leading a British program that brought masterworks by both men as well as the first season appearance of the Grant Park Chorus. The sea-inspired program will be repeated Saturday night at the Pritzker Pavilion.

Chicago is overdue for a revival of Peter Grimes, but in the meantime compensation was provided with the compelling performance of the Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Britten’s opera, which opened the evening. These introductions to each act distill the essence of the fishing village milieu and the guilty, haunted title character.  

As shown in Wednesday night’s rewarding but drenched season-opener, the Grant Park Orchestra is clearly in prime performing mode this first week of the summer concert season. Kalmar led an atmospheric rendering of “Dawn,” which opens the opera, the high violins and burbling winds placing the bleak tale in context. Kalmar’s take on “Sunday Morning” felt too tense and driven, however, missing the relaxed bustle of the fishing village coming to life.

“Moonlight” got things back on track, with Kalmar and the musicians conveying the sense of unease and foreboding in this spare, searching music. The Passacaglia came next– contra the program–with burnished solos by principal violist Terri Van Valkinburgh framing the unfolding drama. The orchestra whipped up an imposing tempest in the Storm to conclude the first half.

Ralph Vaughan Williams completed A Sea Symphony in 1909, and would write eight more varied works in the genre over his long life.  As Kalmar noted in his user-friendly introduction, while the Walt Whitman poems set by the composer are outwardly nautical, there is a wider “parable of life” in the texts and the symphony–not least the existential symbolism of the second and fourth movements.

The work is cast on a vast scale, spanning over an hour and scored for large orchestra and chorus with two vocal soloists. While not all of the plank-like oratorio moments have aged well, the best of the Sea Symphony displays the youthful exuberance of Vaughan Williams’ music, and was put across with great fervor by the Grant Park forces under Kalmar’s exacting direction.

In the opening bars (“Behold, the sea itself!”) the Grant Park Chorus sang with daunting power and amplitude, the ensemble handling the swift sea-faring lines of “The Waves” with equal aplomb.

Yet while the texts were enunciated with clarity, the choral singing was too often marred by explosive sibilants, to the extent that their hissing “S’s” threatened to distort the vocal line in the opening movement. Perhaps the amplification had some part to play, but the effect was jarring and an uncharacteristic lapse from Christopher Bell’s usually polished ensemble.

The two soloists were largely up to the solo challenges. David John Pike possesses as ample voice and sang with facility in the finale. But the Canadian baritone’s rather bland and literal vocalism in the second movement (“On the Beach At Night, Alone”) could have used more expressive engagement with the text (also an issue with Pike’s singing in Martinů’s The Epic of Gilgamesh last summer).

No complaints about Sara Jakubiak. The American soprano–currently based in Germany–consistently illuminated Whitman’s stanzas, singing with feeling and involvement throughout. Her rich, dramatic soprano soared thrillingly over the chorus and orchestra in the unbridled moments.

Kalmar led a concentrated performance that put across the big ensemble passages with striking power and full-bodied sonority while bringing intimacy to the more interior sections–not least the long, hushed diminuendo of the closing section, which was beautifully done.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Pritzker Pavilion. gpmf.org

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Kalmar, Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus set sail with Vaughan Williams’ “Sea Symphony””

  1. Posted Jun 17, 2017 at 5:29 pm by DYCross

    Thanks for your remarks about Sara Jakubiak, a soprano who is really coming into her own. There aren’t so many sopranos around, who have the beauty of voice, the inherent musicality and the amazing artistry of this soprano. She is very special.

  2. Posted Jun 24, 2017 at 1:16 pm by Mike Miller

    I thought Sara Jakubiak was magnificent! I can’t wait to hear her again. I hope she returns soon to Grant Park and that Sir Andrew Davis is familiar with her. She is a phenomenon who should be singing at the Lyric Opera. Wow!

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