Eclectic Grant Park Chorus concert undermined by lack of programs

Tue Jun 18, 2024 at 11:56 am

By Tim Sawyier

The Grant Park Chorus performed Monday night at the South Shore Cultural Center. Photo: Charles Osgood

While the Millennium Park performances of the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus are no doubt the Grant Park Music Festival’s marquee events, the summer series also hosts a number of smaller-scale performances at venues throughout the city each summer. 

Such was the case Monday night when outgoing artistic director Carlos Kalmar led the Grant Park Chorus in an eclectic a cappella program at the South Shore Cultural Center.

Kalmar said in his opening remarks that he wanted to lead a concert with just the Chorus as part of his final year at the GPMF helm, and that the program he curated comprised “random pieces” he happened to like for different reasons. While the varied bill, prepared by chorus director Christopher Bell and Kalmar himself, did have the feeling of miscellany at times, the high level of the collective vocalism Kalmar drew in this collaboration never wavered, illuminating the choral curios on offer with care and poise.

The intermission-less evening began with Caroline Shaw’s and the swallow, written in 2017 as a musical reply to the Syrian refugee crisis. Shaw’s setting of Psalm 84 begins in earthy wordless depths from which the sopranos emerge with high humming that evokes the titular bird. A somber atmosphere prevails as the swallow’s search for a safe place to build her nest mirrors the experience of those displaced by political violence.

Mendelssohn’s Six Songs, Op. 59, followed as the most substantial offering of the evening. Mendelssohn treats six poems by five different German poets with typical elegance, all of the texts extolling the virtues of nature. Kalmar presided over limpid renderings of these exquisite and lesser-known works in a manner that projected the settings’ bucolic warmth and expansiveness.

Mendelssohn was followed by Ēriks Ešenvalds’ In Paradisum, which treats the portion of the Latin Requiem Mass that typically accompanies the removal of the body from the church to its final resting place. Grant Park Orchestra members assistant principal viola Yoshihiko Nakano and principal cellist Walter Haman provided the instrumental obbligati to Ešenvalds’ setting, evocatively capturing the fluttering of angels’ wings as they hover over the imagined casket. Like Shaw’s work, Ešenvalds’ begins with wordless depths, before seemingly finding the language to solemnly intone the words of the Requiem, shifts subtly charted by Kalmar.

Bruckner’s brief Os Justi (“The Mouth of the Righteous”) came next, a condensed and moving expression of the composer’s piety. Kalmar led a luminous rendition that seemed to create a vast sonic space with the ancient Lydian idiom the composer adopts for this setting.

Photo: Charles Osgood.

Two selections of Zoltán Kodály ensued, The Aged and See the Gypsies. Kalmar said of the former, with lyrics drawn from early work of poet Sándor Weöres, that it was impressive for such a young poet to express the essence of old age. The work Kodály produced is a dirge-like meditation on late life, and the lyrics (“Prisoners they are, dull and indifferent, fast held in bondage. And their fetters are the load of bygone years…”) took a decidedly bleak view of life’s final period. The free-wheeling gypsy number restored the mood, however, with Kalmar finding percussive esprit with his singers.

Arvo Pärt’s Which Was the Son Of… closed the announced proceedings, with its almost humorously lengthy recitation of Christ’s genealogy, leading all the way back to Adam and God. Pärt proceeds episodically, beginning in a gently dancing, sing-song minor vein, which segues into more flowing and finally hymn-like textures as the generations approach the Lord Almighty. Kalmar navigated these transitions in a reading that conveyed the score’s cyclically hypnotic aspect.

As an encore, Kalmar offered more Mendelssohn with his “Richte mich, Gott,” Op. 78, no. 2, sung with spiritual earnestness and calm. It closed the evening with glowing choral sonorities that seemed to match the sunset colors pouring through the vast windows at South Shore.

The Grant Park Music Festival’s decision this year to dispense with formal printed programs in favor of small pamphlets that merely list the evening’s works is particularly damaging for choral performances, as one has to refer to one’s smartphone to read the translations in real time. The new small leaflets omit rosters, composition dates, opus numbers, and even movements—the titles of the individual Six Songs were absent, as were their poets. 

Online, the original texts and the English settings were so askew it was impossible to follow, and one was forced to scroll endlessly between program notes and the translations. This dearth of readily accessible information hampers the appreciation of a performance while manufacturing a completely unnecessary distraction.

Perhaps most importantly, there are those among us who look forward to concerts as those increasingly rare occasions when one’s phone is decidedly off—the last thing anyone needs is further reason than there already is to put their head down and stare at their little screen. 

Let us hope this misguided policy gets revisited promptly.

The program will be repeated 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Columbus Park Refectory.

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “Eclectic Grant Park Chorus concert undermined by lack of programs”

  1. Posted Jun 18, 2024 at 6:21 pm by JJ Thomas

    I support the abolishing of physical programs. They’re a waste of paper, they’re usually just full of ads, and I can perfectly easily get the info online if I want it. And I never follow texts during the music as I’d rather concentrate on the music.

  2. Posted Jun 19, 2024 at 9:57 am by Andrew Nogal

    I’m with you, Tim. Tucking the program notes, texts, and musician roster away on some probably unwieldy website is an extremely frustrating development. In fact, when I perform a concert with no printed program, I feel as though I’m not being credited for my work in any lasting way.

    And I am not happy to see audience members playing with their phones during my concerts.

  3. Posted Jun 20, 2024 at 9:22 am by GCMP

    Printed programs are a must! If the CSO or Lyric try to dispense with them I shall stop donating. And maybe stop attending.

    Joffrey has no printed programs and their little handout is useless. Dealing with the phone because they can’t even print a cast list is abominable.

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