Grant Park Orchestra, Chorus in season finale with firmly grasped Verdi

August 20, 2011

Carlos Kalmar's final program of the Grant Park season confirmed one of the major strengths of the year: large-scale choral/vocal works, respectfully prepared and vividly presented.

But where several of the concerts held rarities of the second rank, Friday night's had Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem Mass, a masterwork that since World War II has appeared on programs and recordings almost too often.

Memories of other performances thus came to the fore more readily than with Felix Mendelssohn's "Lobegesang" Symphony in June or Franz Schmidt's "Book with Seven Seals" last week. Which meant one of the chief pleasures of Kalmar's vibrant, forward-moving account was how well it withstood comparison with performances more gleaming in execution or Italianate in singing.

Listeners are awestruck by the tumult of Verdi's "Dies Irae." But the score reveals how he more often asks for "sweet" tone produced at the lowest volume. Kalmar achieved a "Dies Irae" of shivering intensity, less a matter of loudness and speed than lean, cutting tone pushed close to hysteria. But the music's many demands for sweetness were fulfilled only intermittently, then either coarsened by amplification or obliterated by sirens on one of the noisiest nights of the summer.

The Grant Park Chorus, prepared by William G. Spaulding, did not, of course, have the uninhibited vibrato and operatic dash of native Italians. But it did have steadiness, purity and nervous energy added to clear articulation. And if its tone lacked the last ounce of darkness, it usually had just the right amount of reverence and hush.

Vocal soloists were well-matched, with men not overpowering the women. As a group they, too, showed steadiness plus a firm grasp of the drama of the text, with no more expressiveness than the words could bear.

Soprano Amber Wagner was firm and full-toned, making her exposed ascent to a high B flat in the "Libera Me" with little apparent effort. Mezzo-soprano Michaela Martins showed power tempered by subtlety, magically shadowing Wagner in the "Agnus Dei."

Tenor Michael Fabiano was the most soulful of the singers, at once plaintive and inward in expression. Bass Kyle Ketelsen proved precise and secure, yet had some way to go in conveying unexaggerated but utmost terror in the "Mors stupebit."