Superb soloists, Grant Park forces take flight in Vivaldi’s “Gloria”

Sat Jul 10, 2021 at 2:34 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Chorus director Christopher Bell, soloists Susan Nelson, Sarah Ponder and Corinne Wallace-Crane, and conductor Carlos Kalmar take a bow at the conclusion of Vivaldi’s “Gloria” Friday night at the Grant Park Music Festival. Photo: Norman Timonera

At first glance, the three works on Friday night’s program at the Grant Park Music Festival would appear to have nothing in common. Come to think of it, at second and third glance they don’t have anything in common either.

Who cares? For those waiting two years for the return of Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra Friday night’s program served up Baroque choral music, a classic American work for strings and a cornerstone German symphony. That the musical results proved mixed seemed almost irrelevant next to the pleasure of hearing a lakefront concert again on a beautiful summer evening.

Vivaldi’s sacred music tends to get short shrift these days, at least next to his bewildering superabundance of concertos. But as shown in works like the Magnificat, Dixit Dominus and the Gloria heard Friday night, Vivaldi was an inspired composer in the religious genre. 

His Gloria—really a 30-minute mini-mass—is especially masterful. Cast in eleven concise sections for three soloists and chorus, the setting explores a striking range and variety of expression, evincing a depth of spiritual feeling that will surprise those acquainted only with the composer’s measure-cut-fit concerto style. 

As sung by the Grant Park Chorus, the soaring jubilation of the opening “Gloria”—taken at a lightning tempo by Kalmar— seemed to release all the pent-up emotion of the past two years with a manifest gratitude to be performing again. Prepared by chorus director Christopher Bell, the ensemble sang superbly with commitment, clarity of diction and mostly polished, well-blended tone throughout. Their flexibility and assurance in the quick alternation of fast and slow sections of the “Gratias agimus tibi” was emblematic.

Kalmar showed mastery of this score, drawing incisive, tightly focused playing by the chamber orchestra. Fast sections were exhilarating and the conductor seamlessly segued into slower, more contemplative sections, blending the mercurial shifts into a cohesive and unified whole.

This superb performance was sealed by the contributions from the three soloists, all longtime members of the Grant Park Chorus. Susan Nelson and Sarah Ponder conveyed the joyful praise of the “Laudamus te”; Nelson also delivered a lovely “Domine Deus” with full, plangent soprano tone and dedicated expression. Concertmaster Jeremy Black’s violin obbligato was on the same high level.

Mezzo-soprano Corinne Wallace-Crane was inspired in her “Domine Deus” solo with chorus, her dark tone, secure line and moving stoic expression providing the high point of the evening (with a fine obbligato assist by cellist Walter Haman). She also showed impressive agility in the ensuing “Qui sedes” for such an ample voice.

The rest of the evening was not quite on the same level.

For all its popularity, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings is not a work that plays itself—it requires careful dynamic marking and a focused precision of expression if the aura of subsumed tragedy is to come off successfully. 

That didn’t happen Friday night with Kalmar leading a flowing performance, mostly well played but staying entirely on the surface. Dynamics rarely ventured lower than a robust mezzo-forte and climaxes sounded soupy. If you’re going to tell us how “wrenching” and “heart-warming” a piece of music is—as the conductor did in his unnecessary introduction—it would be good if those qualities were actually present in the performance.

Brahms’ Third Symphony is the composer’s shortest yet least-often-played of his four in the genre, a work that can be elusive for listeners as well as interpreters. Push the drama too far and it sounds overheated; lay back too much and the work can seem lightweight and even dull, the quiet coda anticlimactic.

The Third remained elusive with Friday’s Grant Park Orchestra reading sounding more like a promising rehearsal than a finished performance. The first movement fell into the trap of insufficient impetus established in the opening bars, failing to sustain momentum. The second theme benefited from the orchestra’s pastoral woodwinds, with nicely bucolic playing from clarinetist Dario Brignoli. Still, there was a palpable lack of energy and ballast—possibly exacerbated by the reduced strings, the socially distanced stands or both. Unusually for a Kalmar-led performance, the playing was wanting in drive and thrust. Perhaps the continued musician masking has a more deleterious effect on playing than anyone wants to admit. 

The cellos and basses brought burnished Brahmsian richness to the Andante yet here too the performance tended to plod, the score feeling sectionalized. The brass, situated in the choral risers, brought some welcome point and excitement to the latter movements, with Kalmar stoking the stormy pages of the finale and slowing artfully, if not quite organically, for the closing bars and quiet coda.


The poise of the soloists in the Vivaldi Gloria was especially impressive considering the visual distractions they and the rest of the musicians had to contend with Friday night. An unending stream of—presumably well-connected—late arrivals were ushered to their seats throughout the Vivaldi performance. That along with constant seat changing, ushers walking up and down the aisles and sotto voce conversations between patrons and ushers was a near-constant distraction. What happened to not allowing audience seating in the pavilion until the end of each work? All that noise, bustle and movement is unfair to the performers—as well as the majority of attentive and respectful patrons who manage to get to Millennium Park on time.

The program will be repeated 6:30 p.m. Saturday.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Superb soloists, Grant Park forces take flight in Vivaldi’s “Gloria””

  1. Posted Jul 11, 2021 at 6:18 pm by Brandon R Barton

    I have an answer as to your last comment: with the good weather the biggest crowd came so far….and met a huge security line! I was there in time to walk in by 6:30 but I was met with a line extending from the pavilion all the way back to Michigan Ave.

    While in line I sent in a complaint and they said they will have more screeners (only had 2!, and only one entrance).

Leave a Comment