Grant Park Chorus brings fluency and fervor to wide-ranging program

Fri Jul 20, 2018 at 11:46 am

By John Y. Lawrence

Christopher Bell conducted the Grant Park Chorus Thursday night at the South Shore Cultural Center. Photo: Charles Osgood

The three B’s were highlights of the Grant Park Chorus concert Thursday night at the South Shore Cultural Center. But not the three B’s that you’re probably thinking of. This time it was Barber, Bruckner, and Britten.

They were joined on the program by three British composers that don’t cross the pond often enough: William Henry Harris, Michael Tippett, and Kenneth Leighton.

In his spoken remarks, chorus master Christopher Bell referred to the Grant Park Chorus as an “instrument,” which was an apt term. They are everything a good instrument should be: balanced, sensitive, and responsive to the interpretive demands of a conductor like Bell, who has a flair for the dramatic.

One could glean all this from the first two pieces alone. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” begins Barber’s setting of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur.” Their performance was charged indeed: piercing cries of “flame out” in the first section, and a tender hush as the renewal of nature is described in the second.

The word “faire” in Harris’s “Faire is the Heaven” underwent half a dozen dynamic shifts in the piece’s first few seconds. And the chorus melted with perfect smoothness between stanzas.

At the center of the program were three Bruckner motets. Even those who find Bruckner’s symphonies bloated can warm to these pieces, in which his luscious harmonies unfold at a less glacial pace.

Often, these motets come across as more intimate than the symphonies. But Lee and the Grant Park Chorus eschewed intimacy for fervor.

Virga Jesse floruit blazed out as if the chorus were one enormous pipe organ. The “Sancta Maria” middle section of the Ave Maria normally builds from mezzo-forte to fortissimo. But the chorus began it at a meaty forte that grew positively colossal.

The Grant Park Chorus’s dynamic range is one of their greatest strengths. But it was their only minor liability in this concert, for it seemed like Bell was trying to get them to traverse the extremes of soft and loud in every piece.

One case in point: To complement Barber’s setting of “God’s Grandeur,” Bell also included Leighton’s setting of the same poem. After the intense performance of the Barber, the Leighton seemed a little less godly, largely because one’s ears had grown accustomed to grandeur in each setting.

Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia, which followed, requires a very particular blend of buoyancy and contrapuntal clarity; Bell and the Grant Park Chorus know just how to supply those elements, and did so, especially in the quicksilver scherzo second section.

Soprano Katelyn Lee sang the third movement’s extended solo with a beautifully bright and clean tone. Alto Corrine Wallace-Crane, tenor Eric Buchholz, and bass Keven Keys provided the three shorter solos, each about one or two lines long. Their voices were little dabs of warm color.

The evening ended with spirituals, but not traditional ones. These were instead arrangements by Michael Tippett, who used these settings in his oratorio A Child of Our Time much as Bach before him had used Lutheran chorales. Tippett reimagined these spirituals on an almost operatic scale, perfectly tailored to Bell’s expansive approach.

The soloists were soprano Saira Frank, alto Emily Price, tenor Hoss Brock, and bass John Orduña. Frank glided serenely over the chorus in “Steal Away,” and Orduña’s somber tone fit Tippett’s version of “Go Down, Moses,” which underlines the sense of the Hebrews’ oppression.  

The final spiritual, “Deep River” (which also concludes the original oratorio) was particularly effective—with great, sweeping swells like a tide, ebbing to the serene calm of the words “I want to cross over into camp ground.”  

The Grant Park Chorus will repeat this program at the Columbus Park Refectory 7 p.m. Sunday.

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