Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus give stirring advocacy to Mendelssohn rarity

June 18, 2011

by Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review

After Wednesday’s monsoon-like drenching of the Grant Park Music Festival on opening night, the weather gods proved much more charitable Friday for the first appearance of the Grant Park Chorus and a genuine rarity by Mendelssohn.

There are not many overlooked works in Felix Mendelssohn’s celebrated canon with his Violin Concerto, chamber works and most of his symphonies among the most played repertoire cornerstones.

With one key exception. Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2 — his fourth to be composed but never mind — remains one of the most neglected work of his oeuvre. Written in 1840 for a festival marking the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s printing press, the choral symphony, subtitled Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise), proved a huge success throughout the 19th century, earning particular favor in England where it helped establish the composer’s lasting popularity.

The unwieldy structure of the Second Symphony likely accounts for the work’s fall from grace into its current neglect, with a three-part orchestral introduction and somewhat nonlinear vocal and choral movements. (Even with its deep German roots, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has yet to perform this work.)

Yet for all its awkwardness and somewhat musty air of Victorian piety, Lobgesang contains much inspired music, and Carlos Kalmar led the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus in a largely rousing performance.

The tripartite Sinfonia opening was assayed with polish and vigor with notably majestic trombones in the opening theme. Yet the opening Allegro felt breathless, with Kalmar’s Presto tempo sacrificing some of the music’s weight and Lutheran gravitas. The lilting Allegretto had the right light touch, but the Adagio religioso — one of Mendelssohn’s finest inspirations — was curiously offhand Friday, sounding perfunctory and lacking the requisite spiritual glow, not helped by some unblended woodwinds.

The performance came into its own in the main choral section of the work, however, and Kalmar drew stirring orchestral playing and choral singing from the Grant Park forces, providing worthy advocacy.

The soloists were an admirable group with Tamara Wilson bringing an opulent soprano to her solo moments and Maire O’Brien solid in her brief opportunities. Most impressive was Brendan Tuohy. As with his superb contributions to last summer’s Dvorak Requiem, the young tenor’s clear diction, plangent tone and expressive singing was a consistent pleasure, most notably in the dramatic Hüter, ist die Nacht bald hin? (Watchman, will the night soon pass?).

In their first outing of the summer the Grant Park Chorus, prepared by choral director Christopher Bell, sang with characteristic energy and sturdy dedication. At times it was clear that they were not quite at peak-season form as yet with unblended textures and words often indistinct, especially from the high voices and in full ensemble passages.

The chorus, however, rose to the big moments in worthy style. The singers handled Kalmar’s challengingly fast tempo for the opening chorus with aplomb, brought a triumphant sense of rejoicing to the fugal writing of Die Nacht ist vergangen and sang with poise and tender expression in Nun danket alle Gott.

Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang was preceded by another, more concise, curio — Friede auf Erden (Peace on Earth) by Arnold Schoenberg.

Schoenberg wrote a significant amount of superb choral music, much of which continues to lie neglected. This early work (1907) dates from just before the composer’s turn towards serialism but in its complexity and chromaticism points toward the 12-tone road ahead.

Bell noted in his witty introduction that Schoenberg belatedly added a small chamber orchestra to accompany the singers to aid intonation and/or cover the inevitable choral lapses. As Bell said, the Grant Park Chorus can handle the difficulties alone, and Kalmer led an ardent and committed a cappella performance of this lovely setting. Could we perhaps hear Schoenberg’s Four Pieces for mixed choir or Six Pieces for men’s choir next year?