Grant Park Chorus soars in Carl Vine’s resplendent “Choral Symphony”

Sat Jun 15, 2019 at 3:30 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Kareem Roustom congratulates conductor Carlos Kalmar following the world premiere of Roustom’s “Turn to the World: A Whitman Cantata” Friday night at the Grant Park Music Festival. Photo: Norman Timonera

Overcast skies threatened a reprise of the rain that—once again—bedeviled opening night of the Grant Park Music Festival 48 hours earlier. Fortunately, the weather gods were beneficent, with the wet starting to fall only in the closing minutes of Friday night’s concert at the Pritzker Pavilion.

The lakefront festival program marked the first appearance by the Grant Park Chorus, who were prominent in the world premiere of Kareem Roustom’s Turn to the World: A Whitman Cantata. Yet it was the music of Carl Vine that proved the true discovery of the night.

In his commissioned work, Roustom draws a parallel between Walt Whitman’s stanzas about “nationwide, and worldwide, moral and spiritual collapse” and the current political moment— i.e., since the 2016 fall election.

The Syrian-American composer stays nonpartisan in his program note, while Carlos Kalmar, in his introductory remarks, made no bones about the music’s political inspiration nor where he stands. While Kalmar said the work ends in a hopeful coda, he added that Turn to the World is timely in that it reflects a “failure of society,” “injustice,” and “people working in high office that shouldn’t be there.”

Roustom is a talented composer as he has shown in other works, including his Ramal, presented here two seasons ago. Yet one can’t say that Turn to the World is one of his stronger or more convincing works.

Though Roustom took his overall inspiration from Whitman’s social and political critiques in Democratic Vistas, all four texts used are from the last edition of Leaves of Grass.

The stanzas offer the poet’s intermittent high-flown eloquence, but most lines are set in Whitman’s most lofty and verbose public style. I doubt even Mozart could have found a way to score a sentence like “As I stand aloof and look, there is to me something profoundly affecting in large masses of men, following the lead of those who do not believe in men.”

In addition to the syntactic awkwardness, Roustom’s writing for chorus feels rudimentary and didactic, centering on loud unison bombast. The declamatory nature of the vocal music wears thin after a few minutes, the tub-thumping style recalling some of Shostakovich’s more embarrassing Party dues-paying choral epics. 

Likewise, the strident, pounding orchestra part may reflect the composer’s political ire and indignation, but it’s also too unvaried and repetitive, and Roustom’s piece felt a lot longer than 18 minutes. Ultimately, the leaden musical results showed that politically inspired music of the “Resistance” can be just as deadly as the most numbing patriotic cantata of the mid-20th century.

The chorus sang with daunting power and the Grant Park Orchestra members brought gleam and sonic punch to the premiere under Kalmar’s direction. Roustom’s work was received with the inevitable festival standing ovation and the composer was enthusiastically cheered as he took the stage for a bow.

It was not the Roustom premiere, but Carl Vine’s Symphony No. 6 (1996), which proved the more inspired and finely crafted choral work Friday night.

Cast in four continuous movements running 26 minutes, Vine designed his “Choral Symphony” to “revel in the power of the human community” in a kind of nonsectarian spirituality. As the Australian composer puts it, the symphony “relates to our basic need for religion without being overtly religious.”

Towards that end, Vine has chosen four texts from dead languages. The mythic-folk words themselves are less interesting than the arresting, strangely beautiful sonorities of these obscure, long-lost sounds.

Unlike the emphatic hectoring of Roustom’s writing, from the quiet opening bars of Vine’s symphony, it was clear that we have a composer who truly understands voices and knows how to write music for large chorus. Vine writes in a tonal, melodic style yet wields a rich and subtle palette, ranging from the hushed stealing in of voices at the start of the first section (“Enuma Elish”) to the resplendent final hymn to the sun (“Eis Helion”). Most striking was the second section (“Eis Gen Metera Panton”) where the music for women’s voices alone was rapt and gorgeous.

It’s a testament to the remarkably versatility of the Grant Park Chorus that their singing of texts in Greek Epic Dialect and Semitic Akkadian were so bracingly clear and communicative that the dead languages spoke with the engaging immediacy of a pop hit. Kudos to chorus director Christopher Bell for pulling off another demanding assignment.

The orchestra playing was just as polished and committed under Kalmar—luminous in the inward passages and rising to a resounding coda with organ, chorus and orchestra in full cry. Carl Vine should be the next composer tapped for a Grant Park commission.

The first half offered music of Sibelius and Beethoven.

Kalmar tends to be underrated in core repertoire, likely because he conducts such a wide swathe of music. But Grant Park’s artistic director is a first-class Beethoven hand, as he showed once again in the composer’s Symphony No. 8.

Even in this familiar music, Kalmar brought a fleet urgency and nervy high spirits that made the score emerge uncommonly fresh—fizzing vitality and insistent accents in the opening movement and a wry balletic touch in the Allegretto’s metronomic homage. With responsive playing by the musicians, the finale was Beethoven as it was meant to be, with the composer’s watch-me-top-this dynamic flips and harmonic curveballs exhilarating in their rapid-fire succession.

The evening led off with Sibelius’s Karelia Overture, heard in its belated festival debut. The opener to Sibelius’s early theatrical music based on Finnish legend is less often heard than the Karelia Suite, though the “Alla marcia” makes an appearance here too. 

Kalmar led an atmospheric, deftly balanced performance, drawing superb playing that conveyed the subdued nationalism of the hymn-like theme, as surely as the rustic edge and the march’s jaunty swagger.

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

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One Response to “Grant Park Chorus soars in Carl Vine’s resplendent “Choral Symphony””

  1. Posted Jun 16, 2019 at 5:15 pm by Christopher Bell

    Thank you for the personal shout out. I should say that I am part of a great team. Paul Nicholson presides at the piano and learns/prepares all these new pieces that we do at Grant Park with huge zeal. He doesn’t put a finger wrong, and so from the first second of rehearsal we are on safe ground.

    For language, I have a number of people who help the GP Chorus in this regard. I am very forensic about making sure the chorus projects its diction. But I need help, and for this programme I had Benjamin Rivera (very fine diction coach, GP Bass, and chorusmaster/conductor in his own right in both Chicago and Fort Wayne). It’s a team effort.

    Hope to see you at the Missa Solemnis and Women Composers a cappella. And Delius Mass of Life … how many times have you heard that live?

    Christopher Bell
    Chorus Director, Grant Park Chorus

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