Bell, Grant Park Chorus go green for Irish program

Thu Aug 05, 2021 at 10:42 am

By Wynne Delacoma

Christopher Bell conducted the Grant Park Chorus in “From Ireland with Love” Wednesday night at the Pritzker Pavilion. Photo: Elliot Mandel

If you were looking for subtle programming, Wednesday night’s Grant Park Music Festival concert was not the place.

Titled “From Ireland with Love,” the a cappella choral program was mostly a compendium of familiar Irish tunes. Christopher Bell, the festival’s ebullient, Belfast-born chorus director who is also a witty onstage story teller, was on the podium, looking like a sophisticated leprechaun in his sparkling, metallic green tuxedo jacket. Sentimental favorites like “Danny Boy,” “Wearing of the Green” and “The Last Rose of Summer” set the large audience quietly singing or merrily clapping along.  

If you were looking for subtly shaded, impeccably precise, highly expressive choral singing, however, you would have been very happy. Bell, celebrating his 20th year with the festival, has shaped its chorus into an exceptionally supple ensemble. And several of the less familiar pieces on Wednesday’s program showcased the chorus’s formidable depth. 

Three Motets, set to Latin religious texts and composed in 1892 by Dublin-born Charles Villiers Stanford, was full of intricately layered textures and shifting tonal colors. In the first and third motets, gently curving melodic lines unfurled seamlessly, men’s and women’s voices melting into one another as they alternately picked up and passed on Stanford’s introspective melodies. In the second motet, celebrating Christ’s ascension into heaven, they hurled themselves into triumphant leaps and exuberant rhythmic accents. Even outdoors and amplified, the singing rang out strong and resonant, their sound lingering in the soft summer air making the Pritzker Pavilion into a soaring, al fresco Gothic cathedral. 

Photo: Elliot Mandel

Bell rearranged the program slightly to make the most of chOirland, a 2002 work by David Fennessy. The piece references the popular Irish lullaby, “Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral,” which the chorus sang, along with “My Wild Irish Rose” and “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” before chOirland. Singing nonsense syllables, the chorus threw itself into Fennessy’s brief piece, assaulting every propulsive accent like manic Irish fiddle players. The men kept up an urgent, fast-paced pulse that became desperate and obsessive. The chorus’s breakneck pace and rhythmic precision were breathtaking.  

Several chorus members stepped out as soloists, among them tenor Hoss Brock, who brought a world-weary strength and warmth to the melancholy “The Parting Glass.” Kaitlin Foley, with her powerful yet crystalline soprano, and bass Dan Richardson turned “Danny Boy” into an intimate mini-opera. In Michael McGlynn’s 1993 piece, Aisling, oboist Katherine Young Steele spun out a deceptively simple Celtic-infused tune. Against the haunted, atmospheric chorus, her dark-tinged solo moved like an ominous shadow. 

Subtle programming? Nope. Expert music-making? Absolutely.

Carlos Kalmar conducts the Grant Park Orchestra 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 “Winter Dreams” and Sibelius’ Violin Concerto with soloist Augustin Hadelich.

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