Kalmar, Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus wrap the summer with a combustible Verdi Requiem

August 20, 2011

by Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review

For a time at Millennium Park Friday night it seemed that, to paraphrase the Latin text, a day of wrath was indeed consuming the world in ashes, or at least a good part of downtown Chicago.

A procession of police, fire and ambulance sirens descended upon the Grant Park Music Festival’s season-closing performance of Verdi’s Requiem with multiple jarring disruptions — from the very start when conductor Carlos Kalmar held a few moments to wait for the noise to abate, to the conclusion ninety minutes later with more ear-splitting sirens impacting the hushed Libera Me. It was a tough night for everyone involved — Kalmar, the soloists, the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus, and the estimated 10,000 audience members that filled the pavilion and lawn.

Still, Kalmar and his forces prevailed and the festival’s principal conductor wrapped the 77th season in grand style with a combustible performance of Verdi’s epic Requiem that managed to ride over the unfortunate sonic distractions. There is one more performance Saturday night and this is not an event to miss.

Kalmar is at his best in the large theatrical works for chorus and orchestra and Friday’s performance of Verdi’s operatic setting of the mass for the dead showed the festival’s artistic director and principal conductor at his most inspirational. Even by the high standards of this partnership, the music-making of Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra was incendiary Friday night with whipcrack dramatic intensity from the entire orchestra, and especially blazing contributions from the brass section.

Much of the success of the evening was due to the extraordinary solo vocalism of Amber Wagner. The former Ryan Opera Center alumna — who will star in the Lyric Opera’s Ariadne auf Naxos this fall — is the real thing, possessing an opulent soprano, seamless throughout her range and thrown off with remarkable ease of production. Clad in a not-so-somber hot pink gown, the Oregon native rose to the challenge of the climactic Libera Me with the artistry and technical gleam of a seasoned veteran, singing with dramatic point and expressive subtlety.

At the other end of the vocal spectrum Kyle Ketelsen provided equally excellent advocacy. Though his bass-baritone doesn’t possess the black timbre of a true bass, Ketelsen’s fluent, darkly authoritative singing was consistently inspired, refined in expression and technically immaculate.

The middle voices of the quartet proved more variable. Michaela Martens has a rich mezzo timbre but frequently proved uneven in her short-breathed phrasing and tendency to fade at the ends of phrases. Tenor Michael Fabiano had some worthy moments, bringing an apt vulnerability to the Hostias, but he often sounded dry-toned and strained at the top of his range, notably so in the Ingemisco.

Prepared by William G. Spaulding, the Grant Park Chorus delivered their finest performance of the summer, bringing glowing refinement to the more interior passages and unbridled explosive intensity to the Dies Irae.

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