Music of women composers shines in wide-ranging Grant Park Chorus program

Fri Jul 19, 2019 at 1:37 pm

By Landon Hegedus

Christopher Bell conducted the Grant Park Chorus Thursday night at the Columbus Park Refectory.

The Grant Park Chorus once again braved unfavorable weather – this time, a simmering heat wave – to deliver a wonderful program of a cappella works by women composers, led by chorus director Christopher Bell Thursday night. The loyal Grant Park audience was unfazed by the conditions, joining in musical communion in the (thankfully air conditioned) Columbus Park Refectory on the West Side.

Despite the idyllic setting, the acoustical deficiencies of the room immediately came to light in the stentorian opening of Thea Musgrave’s Rorate coeli. The 60-member chorus spanned the entire width of the Refectory, and though no fault of their own, the back voices were often swallowed by the room’s unforgiving venue, leaving a top-heavy sound in the program’s brassiest moments.

In spite of these challenges, the chorus delivered an admirable reading of the barnstorming Rorate coeli, navigating tricky entrances and dense polytonal clusters with panache. Soloist were in fine form, particularly David Govertson, who lent his oaken bass-baritone to summon the dragon Lucifer amid serpentine hisses from the treble voices. Clarity suffered in some of the densest moments, with the middle section’s sotto voce incantations often fading among the mass of sibilants.

A selection of Clara Schumann songs billed as Three Mixed Choruses furnished some placid pastoralism as an antidote. The standout of these was the gently lilting “Gondoliera,” which proved fitting accompaniment to the chorus of cicadas buzzing outside the Refectory walls. Louise Talma’s A Wreath of Blessings offered a tinge of Americana also appropriate to the locale, with soprano Susan Nelson’s brief solo in the opening setting, “A House Blessing,” securing a place among the evening’s solo highlights.

Fanny Mendelsson’s “Nachtreigen” shone with warm humor in this performance. The choir’s excellent diction, shapely phrasing, and burnished tone made a case for testament to the dance of courtship, as did the cheeky smiles skirting the faces of several chorus members after the tutti conclusion.

Throughout this roster of relatively brief works (no piece exceeded 11 minutes), many of the loveliest movements were writ small. Such was the case in Caroline Shaw’s “and the swallow,” which yielded some of the choir’s most subtle, beautifully balanced music of the night. Bell’s sensitive gestures teased out graceful lines that seemed to emerge from the ether, carving the piece in delicate relief. In Shaw’s soaring soprano lines, the stubborn room seemed to finally bend to the will of the music and rang with clarion luster.

The other exquisite miniature was “About Living” from Chicago transplant Lita Grier, who was in attendance. The three-minute work was excerpted from Grier’s Reflections of a Peacemaker, a suite on poems by the young poet Mattie J.T. Stepanek, who passed away from a rare neuromuscular disease at age 14.

The chorus brought plainspoken warmth to Grier’s hymnlike melodies, phrasing fluidly through the most impassioned musings on the brevity of life and delivering the poignant climax with full-throated vigor. Melinda Wagner’s “From a Book of Early Prayers” served as an appropriately contemplative coda.

The focal point of the program was the world premiere of Lori Laitman’s Hands, commissioned by Grant Park on the occasion of Carlos Kalmar’s 20thanniversary as festival artistic director and principal conductor.

The text of Hands is taken from American Robinson Jeffers’s poem, which reflects on a visit to the “Cave of Hands” near Tassajara, California. There a smattering of handprints painted by the ancient Esselen people adorn the cave’s walls. The sight prompted the poet’s stanzas about humanity’s inherent drive toward artistic expression that transcends time.

Laitman’s setting does service to its source material, evoking the mysterious cave in the march-like opening and a smart “chromatic, melismatic melody, rising and falling, as if tracing a hand’s shape from the thumb outward,” as the composer describes in her program notes. Inventively, the piece’s musical material runs tangent to the text through a stylistic mélange of Gregorian chant, Baroque chorale, and 20th-century minimalism layered one atop the other–suggesting that perhaps all art, like the human experience itself, is instantaneously present in every moment.

The premiere was received warmly, garnering a standing ovation from the capacity audience. After the chorus delivered a briskly paced reading of Thea Musgrave’s quirky On the Underground, Set No 2., Bell invited Laitman and Lita Grier to join the chorus at the front of the stage to acknowledge the applause in a fitting cap to the evening.

The program will be repeated 7 p.m. Monday at South Shore Cultural Center.

Based in the Chicago area since 2013, Landon Hegedus is a writer, performer, and composer hailing from Austin, Texas. He is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music, where his concentrations included jazz performance, composition, and English literature. In addition to his freelance actives, Landon works as an arts administrator at UChicago Presents.

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