Morlot, Grant Park forces soar in Stravinsky, choral rarities

Sat Jun 29, 2024 at 11:39 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Ludovic Morlot conducted the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus Friday night in the Harris Theater. Photo: Elliot Mandel

Sometimes Grant Park Music Festival scheduling can be serendipitous. With a persistent rain at concert time, what would have been a soggy Friday night at the Pritzker Pavilion turned out to be dry, comfortable and mercifully quiet in the confines of the Harris Theater. That the performances led by Ludovic Morlot proved largely outstanding added to the evening’s pleasures.

The French conductor appears to be part of a troika on the short list to succeed Carlos Kalmar by virtue of his being tasked with three programs this summer. Morlot, who last led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2015, is currently principal conductor of the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra and National Orchestra of Catalonia. The 50-year-old conductor served as music director of the Seattle Symphony from 2011-19 and was an assistant conductor with the Boston Symphony from 2004-07. 

Following a lightish lineup Wednesday night, Morlot’s middle program proved more compelling and substantial, coupling a Stravinsky ballet score with two intriguing choral rarities.

In brief opening remarks Morlot mentioned a folk music element that united the three seemingly disparate works, adding that listeners could discover other common threads. One theme seems to be a manifest striving for freedom—from the puppet Petrushka raging to escape his cell, to the surmounting of existential darkness in Brahms’ Schickalslied and triumphing over a stifling social and political milieu in Zoltan Kodaly’s Psalmus Hungaricus.

The artistic lineage of Stravinsky’s 1910 Petrushka is French as much as Russian, and one might have expected more of the former from the Lyon-born Morlot. Instead, the conductor led the Grant Park Orchestra in an uber-Russian performance of Stravinsky’s ballet—big-boned, boisterous and treated as an unapologetic orchestral showpiece.

In the opening pages, rhythms were a bit heavy-footed and at times one wanted more nuanced dynamics and diligent balancing. At the most hectic moments of Stravinsky’s score, subsidiary lines tended to get congested and could have used some decluttering.

Still, if not the most subtle Petrushka one will ever hear, this was a brilliantly colored and often thrilling performance (using the slightly reduced forces of the 1947 version). While the essential melancholy of the tormented title puppet could have been more sensitively conveyed, Morlot was at his best in the framing sections, putting across the sleazy-dingy bustle of the Shrove-Tide Fair with vividly characterized episodes, as with the lumbering cellos and basses of the Bear Dance. 

The kaleidoscopic brilliance and sheer audacity of Stravinsky’s score came over effectively, Morlot making clear Petrushka’s position as a road marker from Firebird to The Rite of Spring. The final section and quiet, unsettling coda was especially well directed. The musicians gave the conductor their considerable all with superb first-chair contributions across the board, notably trumpet David Gordon, flutist Mary Stolper, and pianist Christopher Guzman. The conductor was generous in his acknowledgements of individual players for their efforts. 

Brahms’ Schickalslied (Song of Destiny) is set to a Friedrich Hölderlin poem contrasting a luminous heavenly existence with the grim and ultimately futile striving of earthly life. The dark second verse is somewhat mitigated by a major-key reprise of the more hopeful opening section. 

Morlot led the Grant Park Chorus and Orchestra in a burnished and cohesive performance, vastly superior to the CSO outing under Daniel Harding’s hectoring direction last November. The radiant theme of the opening section soared with glorious singing from the ensemble, prepared by chorus director Christopher Bell. The singers delivered the bleak middle section with nearly violent intensity, and Morlot’s sensitive handling of the closing orchestral postlude provided an apt sense of glowing catharsis.

The real curio of the evening was Zoltan Kodaly’s Psalmus Hungaricus. Premiered 101 years ago, this crypto-nationalistic work for tenor, chorus and orchestra put Kodaly on the map and sparked his international career. 

The setting is a free translation by Mihály Vég of Psalm 55, which alternates King David’s prayers for relief from his sorrows with inveighing against his enemies. The biblical text serves to reflect Kodaly’s take on both his stalled career and the post-Hapsburg state of his fractured country with its geographic diminution and social and political chaos.

The Psalmus is rarely heard these days outside of Hungary but it remains a most impressive achievement. Despite the now-arcane contemporary circumstances out of which it arose, Psalmus Hungaricus is an immensely engaging and surely crafted work, freely mixing Hungarian folksong, sophisticated harmonics, Gregorian chant and choral polyphony.

Morlot led a rousing and impassioned performance that delivered Kodaly’s score with tremendous conviction and sonorous weight Friday night. The sense of spiritual gravitas was evident in the opening choral pages and the grand climaxes for chorus and orchestra came across with overwhelming—at times over-the-top—impact.

Tenor Martin Bakari was a soloist in Zoltan Kodaly’s Psalmus Hungaricus Friday night. Photo: Elliot Mandel

Much of the success of the performance was due to soloist Martin Bakari. The American singer’s mellifluous, liquid tenor has a febrile, echt-Slavic quality, ideally suited to this assignment. Singing in what sounded like idiomatic Hungarian, Bakari brought total conviction to the text and sang with great emotional intensity in David’s supplicatory beseeching to God as well as his angry denunciations of his enemies. It’s too bad Morlot allowed the massive climax of the first section to completely obliterate his soloist.

That apart, the conductor brought a sure sense of unity and cumulative drama to the work, building to the big, breakout moments effectively while ensuring the quiet ending had a glowing and satisfying coda. Prepared by Bell, the Grant Park Chorus showed fine versatility, handling the Hungarian text with facility and serving up the Old Testament rage as expressively as the requisite spiritual balm.


The Grant Park Music Festival’s audience-unfriendly elimination of programs continues to be a major annoyance this summer, not least in a choral program such as this with patrons lacking readily accessible notes, texts and translations. 

To avoid fussing with a QR code and bad call reception on your phone during the performance, here is a handy secret decoder ring: to access the notes online directly, go to

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Harris Theater.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Morlot, Grant Park forces soar in Stravinsky, choral rarities”

  1. Posted Jun 30, 2024 at 6:47 am by Phil

    Adding injury to insult, for many sitting deep in Harris Theater’s bowels, there’s no cell reception, making the QR code both annoying but also nonfunctional. After talking to the always helpful GPMF staff, another decoder ring is the guest wifi password: Harris#guest205.

    I support cutting down on paper and ink waste to make financial donations go farther toward the music. But GPMF should have some simple program guides printed for those who request them. Nothing fancy: regular white paper. The program text has already been written and paid for, so printing at most a small number of (200-500?) pages is not a substantial cost.

    Watching a performance while many near you are staring at their phones to read the text is super annoying, and totally defeats the purpose of an immersive artistic outing.

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