Grant Park Chorus celebrates 60 years with a program for a summer evening

Fri Aug 05, 2022 at 10:43 am

By Wynne Delacoma

Christopher Bell conducted the Grant Park Chorus Thursday night at the Pritzker Pavilion. Photo: Norman Timonera

It’s been a grand summer for choral singing in Chicago.

The season started in June with two vibrant anniversary programs: a 20th anniversary celebration for the intrepid Chicago Chorale and a remarkable 150 years for the consistently ambitious Apollo Chorus.

This month it’s the Grant Park Chorus’s turn. Next weekend the chorus will be onstage for Ralph Vaughan Williams’ cantata Dona nobis pacem. And the ensemble will close the Grant Park Music Festival’s season August 19-20 with Haydn’s mighty Creation oratorio, both with the Grant Park Orchestra and soloists conducted by Carlos Kalmar. 

But on Thursday the chorus was front and center, celebrating its 60th anniversary with a special concert at the Pritzker Pavilion. Led by chorus director Christopher Bell, the singers reveled in having the stage virtually all to themselves.

The chorus was masked in deference to continuing Covid-19 concerns, and this was not an evening of choral blockbusters. The composers included such familiar names as Samuel Barber and two contemporary choral masters, Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen. But with the exception of Lauridsen’s five-part Lux Aeterna, the pieces were short and musically subtle. Most were meditations on the stars and night-time, an evocative choice for an outdoor summer music festival.

Bell has directed the Grant Park Chorus for 20 of its 60 years, and he has shaped it into a singularly flexible, transparent ensemble. In the opening bars of the first piece, Stars, a 2011 work by Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds with a text by Sara Teasdale, the soprano voices rose through the air like a glowing mist. Though the chorus’s diction was crisp throughout the evening, the edges of Esenvalds’s slow, lyrical phrases were always soft and pliant. Even amid the ambient thrum of downtown Chicago traffic, the chorus’s long, flowing melodies somehow blossomed with effortless power, turning the open-air Pritzker Pavilion into a resonant cathedral.

Photo: Elliot Mandel

In contrast, Dark Night of the Soul, a 2010 setting of an ecstatic vision of St. John of the Cross by Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo, was full of urgent drive. The opening section was a fascinating contrast in phrasing, with the chorus unfurling long-lined, intricately woven melodies atop pulsing, minimalist accompaniment from pianist Stephen Alltop and a quartet of Grant Park Orchestra string players. Alltop, himself a noted choral conductor, set an authoritative undercurrent stretching from fierce, racing chords to tranquil arpeggios.

Mary Stolper, Grant Park Orchestra’s long-time principal flute, joined the chorus for Abbie Betinis’s 2013 To the Evening Star with words by William Blake. Against the chorus’s constantly shifting layers and gently curving melodies, her rich golden phrases appeared and disappeared.

Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna, a comforting setting of excepts from the requiem Mass, showcased the chorus’s versatility. In its quiet moments, the singers addressed the Lord with serene intimacy, earnestly confident that their prayers would be heard. The low male voices provided a dark, solid base, an elegant springboard for the women’s lilting, eloquent song. But as they summoned the Holy Spirit in the Veni, Sancte Spiritus, the mood was almost jolly. Swinging through the dance-like rhythms, the chorus sounded robust and effervescent. Throughout the evening solo voices, notably sopranos Bethany Clearfield and Kaitlin Foley, emerged momentarily from the choral texture like gleaming shafts of hopeful light.

Bell, sporting a red sequined tuxedo jacket Thursday night, is an ebullient presence onstage. Born in Belfast, Ireland, boyishly irreverent, he has a gift of gab that endears him to audiences. But he is deadly serious about choral music and internationally recognized for his work in the United Kingdom and beyond. He aims high, and his ensemble, whose members include professional singers, music educators and Lyric Opera of Chicago choristers, always delivers.  

The chorus has aimed high since its founding in 1962 by Thomas Peck. Mentored by Margaret Hillis, esteemed founder of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, Peck directed the Grant Park Chorus with great distinction until his death in 1994.

The Grant Park Chorus may be literally overshadowed by the Chicago Symphony Chorus, four years older and in residence most of the year across Michigan Avenue just south of Millennium Park. But as Thursday night’s concert once again made clear, it will not be outshone.

The program will be repeated 6:30 p.m. Monday August 8 at the South Shore Cultural Center.

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