Grant Park orchestra, chorus shine in festival finale

August 17, 2013

by John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune

The final program of this year's Grant Park Music Festival contained two big works from opposite ends of the 20th century that looked to be strange bedfellows but actually complemented one other in unexpected ways. Each received appreciative attention from principal conductor Carlos Kalmar and his ever-amazing Grant Park Orchestra.

Igor Stravinsky's masterpiece "The Rite of Spring," which occupied the second half of the concert first given Friday night, heralded the modernist revolution with its savage piling up of complex polyrhythms, abrupt meter changes and violent discords meant to evoke the rituals of pagan Russia balletically.

Its companion work, John Adams' 1981 "Harmonium," set poems of John Donne and Emily Dickinson to lush, pattering stretches of neo-Romantic minimalism, sumptuously scored for chorus and orchestra. The harmonic fields are largely open, consonant, slowly changing. The score's energy derives not from applications of Stravinskyan brute force but, rather, from processes of accumulation and repetition that build to levels of ecstatic feeling linked to the texts.

If "Rite of Spring" is music of the earth, "Harmonium" is music of the ether.

At the outset of "Harmonium," one's ear was immediately caught by how beautifully the Grant Park Chorus floated its ethereal tones over the softly pulsing orchestra, this despite the ambient noise surrounding the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. In truth, the quieter pages of Adams' wondrous score weren't made to compete with wailing sirens and passing planes, and so their wonted effect was somewhat compromised in the not-so-great outdoors.

The Donne poem "Negative Love" that forms Part I of the Adams piece is an enigmatic meditation on love whose musical setting gains power and mass as it goes along. On Friday the music's slow unfolding took on taut dramatic urgency through Kalmar's adroit pacing and the crisp rhythmic precision the chorus brought to its rapid, syllabic enunciation of the text.

By contrast, the setting of Dickinson's famous poem "Because I Could Not Stop for Death" that begins Part II, is a disembodied rhythmic continuum; cool, shimmering textures are its hallmark. It must be said that despite the great care the chorus took with its declamation, one found it necessary to follow along with the printed text. Paradoxically, subtle instrumental details such as the distant cowbells actually came through well.

The Dickinson poem "Wild Nights" unites the poetic sensibility of the previous section in Adams' rumbling tumult of carnal exultation. The chorus – prepared for this occasion by Donald Nally, director of choral organizations at Northwestern University – was nothing short of miraculous, here as earlier – its rapid delivery of words and music precise of pitch, rhythm, blend and fullness of sound against the orchestra.

The concert also showed us another side of the composer: Adams as arranger. His "orchestral realization" of the late Liszt piano piece "The Black Gondola" brought out the harmonic boldness and elegiac colorings of this death-haunted little tone poem. Kalmar and the orchestra were very much inside the music, as was principal horn Jonathan Boen in his solo passage.

In less than three weeks, local audiences will be able to hear Adams' most recent creation, the oratorio "The Gospel According to the Other Mary," in its Midwest premiere at Ravinia.

The yearlong centennial celebration in honor of the 1913 Paris premiere of "The Rite of Spring" will continue into Chicago's fall season with performances by the Joffrey Ballet, Chicago Philharmonic and the visiting Mariinsky Orchestra. Artist Herbert Migdoll's "The Chosen One," a painting inspired by the Joffrey's recreation of the original Nijinsky choreography, adorned the Pritzker proscenium for the weekend Grant Park concerts, and Migdoll's painting "The Black Gondola" also was displayed at stage level during the concert's first half.

Kalmar – who, believe it or not, had introduced the Stravinsky work to Grant Park audiences as recently as in 2001 – had his orchestra playing with full-throttle drive and crunching weight. The decisiveness of his beat made this "Rite of Spring" a study in finely calibrated fury. The overall level of playing was remarkably high, clean and tight (kudos to principal bassoon Eric Hall), while even scattered roughnesses of tone and execution only added to the elemental violence Kalmar clearly sought to convey.

In all, it proved a gripping conclusion to a remarkably successful Grant Park festival season.

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