Grant Park closes out season with superb Verdi Requiem

August 20, 2011

by Andrew Patner, Chicago Sun-Times

We’ve probably used up the quota for the phrase “embarrassment of riches” in referring to Chicago’s choral and orchestral offerings this year. But with this weekend’s dramatically and superbly realized Verdi Requiem also serving as the season closer for the 2011 edition of the Grant Park Music Festival, we’ll do so one more time.

No city that already has had Riccardo Muti’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performing this masterwork in January 2009 would seem to be entitled to another presentation as good as Carlos Kalmar’s Friday night, to be repeated Saturday evening. (The 2009 dates marked Muti’s first concerts as the CSO’s official music director-designate, and the CSO Resound recording of this stunning event went on to win two Grammy Awards).

Like Muti, Kalmar sees this as a dramatic work, but as a younger man, it is perfectly reasonable that he at times gives greater emphasis to this theatrical side. Soloists enter and exit vocally as if in scenes. The two women especially give aria-like interpretations of their parts. This is never done for show. Kalmar also knows that this is a deep work, not a highwire act. In that 40-minute stretch (of a 90-minute work) punctuated by thumping downpours of the “Dies irae,” Grant Park’s principal conductor has just the right balance between the terrifying and the musical-lyrical and both orchestra and chorus (the latter prepared here by visitor William G. Spaulding), are with him every thunderous and tiptoeing step of the way. Orchestral brass deserves special kudos.

Some day we may learn that there is something that young American soprano and Lyric Opera of Chicago Ryan Center alum Amber Wagner cannot do. My guess is, though, that day is a long way off in a career that is building ever up but also with great care. Wagner was a seemingly effortless marvel throughout the work. In the concluding “Libera me,” she took your breath away with her quiet and control in accompanied, a cappella and city siren-punctuated solos.

Her colleagues in the vocal quartet were also young Americans. Although a bass-baritone, Lyric regular and Midwesterner Kyle Ketelsen was moving here in a bass role. Tenor Michael Fabiano was at his best in a tender “Hostias,” and mezzo Michaela Martens excelled in her several delicate duets with Wagner.

The seats and Great Lawn were packed with 10,000-plus people Friday, and this was, as Grant Park has had increasingly, a crowd of listeners. Very happy ones at that. What a summer it’s been for the festival. An embarrassment of riches.