Bell, Grant Park forces shed brilliant light on a neglected Britten masterpiece

Thu Jun 30, 2022 at 12:52 pm

By John von Rhein

Christopher Bell conducted the Grant Park Orchestra & Chorus in Benjamin Britten’s Spring Symphony Wednesday night. Photo: Norman Timonera

Carlos Kalmar must have particularly regretted having to bow out of conducting a third scheduled program this season of the Grant Park Music Festival. After all, he had long wished to preside over the evening’s much-anticipated centerpiece, Benjamin Britten’s challenging, rarely performed Spring Symphony, with the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus.

But caution on the part of the festival management prompted the mutual decision that the artistic director and principal conductor withdraw from four concerts at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, thus allowing him additional rest after having recently tested positive for Covid.

Given the difficulties posed by the Britten choral symphony and its companion piece on Wednesday night’s absorbing program, Arvo Pärt’s choral and orchestral In Principio, almost any replacement conductor would have had to junk the originally scheduled program in favor of more standard, easily rehearsed fare.

Happily such was not the case on Wednesday, when Christopher Bell, Grant Park’s multi-talented chorus director, took to the podium to lead the combined forces in the Britten and Pärt works. It was in every respect a major event in the year of the Grant Park Chorus’s 60th anniversary.

There was indisputable logic behind the decision to deputize the twinkly Ulsterman to fill in for Kalmar. Both choral pieces have long been in Bell’s repertory, and Bell, who’s celebrating his 21st year as Grant Park Chorus master, had painstakingly prepared his choral charges for the task since the start of the season. Why send out for a replacement when the ideal person for the job is already in the house?

The subbing made for an exceptionally busy week for Bell, who’s also scheduled to preside over the festival’s annual Independence Day Salute on Saturday night. 

But we have long known Bell to be as indefatigable as he is masterful at illuminating challenging, large-scale choral works of this type. He did so with conspicuous clarity and polish on Wednesday, eliciting robust and finely expressive singing from the choruses and vocal soloists, undergirded by committed playing from his orchestral forces.

Stylistic opposites in many respects, the Spring Symphony and In Principio share a vivid sense of exultation. The Britten takes its cue from vividly observed rustic imagery from mostly English pastoral poems written as far apart as the 13th and 20th centuries. The Pärt, with Latin text drawn from the first 14 verses of the Gospel of John, is a spiritual celebration of Christ’;s bringing God’s word and “the Light” to true believers. One piece rejoices, sometimes with wild abandon; the other contemplates, sometimes quietly, the meaning of God’s word.

A hybrid work that’s part song-cycle, part oratorio, part symphony, Britten’s 1949 opus seldom turns up in Chicago, or anywhere else. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus have never touched the score, and the only previous Grant Park performance was in 2001 when conductor James Paul introduced it to the festival repertory. 

The four-movement design is fascinating in itself. Mixed and children’s choruses, three solo singers and huge orchestra (heard at full strength only in the final section) evoke spring, in all its earthy variety, as the instrument of earth’s awakening from the chill of winter. It is one of Britten’s most original and inspired creations.

Bell knows the score, with its dozen interlocking sections, inside and out, and, more importantly, knows how to communicate his deep feeling for its musical essence to performers. His attention to detail, color and dynamic markings was acute. He brought out the wintry chill of the icy string figures at the beginning as unerringly as he reveled in the exuberant ode to the merry month of May at the end.

The choral response was committed and well-balanced, the adult voices imposingly full-throated even when singing softly, the children’s voices of ANIMA a delight, especially in the grand celebration of May Day in which they crowned the exultant choral phrases (3/4 time) with the medieval canon Sumer is icumen in, which Britten has the youth choir deliver in 2/4 time. A pity that the sonic balance favored the adult choir over that of the children, rendering the canon too distant.

Ellie Dehn. Susan Platts and John Matthew Myers were soloists in Britten’s Spring Symphony with the Grant Park Orchestra. Photo: Noman Timonera.

There was an excellent trio of soloists in soprano Ellie Dehn, mezzo-soprano Susan Platts and tenor John Matthew Myers. Dehn, in luscious voice, soared sweetly in “The driving boy,” where she was joined by the merry whistling of the children. Myers, whose vocal timbre uncannily resembles that of Peter Pears, Britten’s lover and longtime muse, delivered his songs with pinpoint diction, beauty of sound and deep feeling for what the words convey. Platts was similarly alive to every musical and expressive nuance, bringing enough dramatic intensity to the Auden setting (“Out on the lawn I lie in bed”) to put her interpretation in league with that of Dame Janet Baker in her prime.

Bell shaped a clear, well-organized continuum of austere sound in the Pärt, the declamatory chorus and post-minimalist orchestra each contributing to the aura of Eastern Orthodox religious and spiritual affirmation. This performance marked the festival premiere of this affecting piece.  

The program had been revised to include Jean Sibelius’ greatest hit, the early tone poem Finlandia. Bell’s inclusion of what is effectively Finland’s second national anthem was “not idly chosen” for presentation in these parlous times, he told the audience—given the association of the anthem with the nation’s asserting its independence in the face of Russian aggression and domination. He drew darkly majestic chords from the brass choir in the opening pages, and fervent playing from the strings in the central patriotic hymn.  

The program will be repeated 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park.

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2 Responses to “Bell, Grant Park forces shed brilliant light on a neglected Britten masterpiece”

  1. Posted Jul 01, 2022 at 10:29 am by Robert Prindle

    The scheduled soprano is indisposed for Friday and Susan Nelson is singing. I did the Mozart Requiem with her in May and she is singing beautifully. You won’t be disappointed!!!

  2. Posted Feb 26, 2023 at 11:32 am by Arnaldo Cohen

    What a virtuoso, sensitive, intelligent and academic writing. A concert of words. Congratulations!
    PS. Even if read many months after its publication.

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