Bell, Grant Park Chorus soothe noisy Millennium Park with gentle Fauré
July 24, 2011
by John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune
Gabriel Fauré's Requiem is not the first work that springs to mind when one thinks of choral music appropriate for performance at Millennium Park. Much of this sacred masterpiece is serene and restrained, a work of quiet consolation to set alongside the fiery heaven-storming of the big Verdi and Berlioz settings.
Yet the appearance of the Fauré Requiem as the centerpiece of Christopher Bell's program with the Grant Park Chorus and Orchestra Friday at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion made sense in both theory and practice. Here was a chance for the brisk and natty Ulsterman to show off the more subtle musical refinements he has built into his sterling choir in the course of his 10 years as its chorus director. On a mild evening relatively undisturbed by the noises of a busy urban lakefront at play, those refinements came off surprisingly well.
In her spoken tribute to Bell at the beginning of the program (which was repeated Saturday night), a chorus member praised his "world-class ear" and "remarkable rapport" with the 100-plus singers of the Grant Park Chorus.
All true, but the Fauré and its contrasting companion work, Leonard Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms," revealed even more about Bell and why the choir has come so far under his leadership. He enforces absolute security in all technical matters (ensemble precision, blend, balance, intonation). He pays close attention to clear diction and word-meanings. He strives to achieve not just beautiful sound but sound that's true to the composers' expressive purposes.
Using Fauré's 1901 version of the Requiem for full orchestra, Bell led an urgent, moving account of a work often seen as undramatic. Evident care had been taken on pronouncing the Latin text with the French vowels the composer would have recognized. The choral sound was full but never forced, flowing easily over the accompaniment of orchestra and organ. If the ethereal radiance the sopranos brought to the "Sanctus," "Agnus dei" and concluding "In Paradisum" sections was exceptional, so was the fervor with which voices and orchestra rose to the "Hosanna in excelsis."
With her pure, shining tones, soprano Lindsay Metzger delivered her "Pie Jesu" as the simple, childlike prayer it was meant to be. Another local singer, Keven Keys, deployed his smooth lyric baritone to winning effect in the "Hostias" and the soloist-led "Libera me" chorus.
Neither Fauré nor Bernstein (born in 1918, six years before the French composer died) was particularly religious, and neither intended his music to be used in a sacred context. "Chichester Psalms," commissioned in 1965 by the Cathedral of Chichester in Sussex, England, is one of Bernstein's strongest, most accessible scores. Setting psalms that are equally a part of Jewish and Christian traditions, he wrapped them in affirmative music that draws on both his classical and Broadway idioms.
Once again Bell was in full command of his forces, sending Bernstein's jazzy syncopations, angular melodies and choral voices – now querulous, now consoling – ricocheting across the pavilion and out to the Great Lawn. As in the Fauré, the chorus' ability to match pitches, connect long phrases and sustain a full sound regardless of dynamic level was a marvel.
The solo part for the "Psalm 23" section can be taken by either a boy alto or a countertenor; Bell opted for the latter. Ryan Belongie sang it musically and expressively, although there was little sense of plaintive, childlike innocence calming the bellicose raging of nations.
Belongie was back to assume the more extended countertenor solo duties in J.S. Bach's Cantata BWV 70 ("Vergnuegte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust"). One can understand Bell's wishing to give his soloist something more to sing besides the Bernstein. But this intimate little sacred cantata needs four walls around it if it is to make any effect whatsoever. In this outdoor setting, the chamber scoring (including oboe d'amore, flute, strings, organ and continuo) was simply lost. Friday's performers did as well as they could with it. Even so, Bach's stern Lutheran plaint against the world's wickedness was lost to the four winds.