Chicago is the star of Grant Park Chorus' golden premiere

June 16, 2012

by John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune

Sometimes a piece of music, the performers and the performance site itself come together in a way that enhances the quality of each element. Such a piece is Michael Gandolfi's "Only Converge: An Exaltation of Place," which received its world premiere by the ensemble for which it was written, the Grant Park Chorus, Friday night at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.

The work is at once a celebration of the chorus' golden anniversary, a capsule tour of Chicago history (from prehistory to the present), and a grand paean to the magnificent urban playground that arose on a patch of abandoned lakefront property nearly 70 years after its primary resident, the Grant Park Music Festival, was founded.

It is the first of two new commissioned works for chorus and orchestra the festival is presenting this summer in honor of the 50th anniversary of director Christopher Bell's splendid chorus, a civic treasure if there ever was one. The second commission, Sebastian Currier's "Sleepers and Dreamers," is scheduled for unveiling July 6 and 7. As the Boston-based composer and his librettist, Dana Bonstrom, see it, the uniqueness, the dynamism, of Chicago lie in the convergences of land, lake and sky, of cultural, political and commercial muscle, that created this metropolis in America's heartland: Hence the title. But they also see the soaring steel sails of the Frank Gehry-designed pavilion as emblematic of the vision that drove the people who made Chicago great to entertain no small plans.

The first section of "Only Converge," titled "Chicago, Summer of '62," is jokey in tone, setting actual headlines from Chicago Tribune stories published during the chorus' debut weeks in 1962 to a frisky melange of cartoonish music and big-band jazz, pop-culture quotes and close jazz harmonies for the chorus. (Well, why not? The Grant Park Chorus sang Cole Porter and Gilbert and Sullivan during its first summer at the old 11th Street bandshell.)

The mood turns serious, the scope epic, in the second movement, "Millennium Rising." Particularly effective is a section in which the men's voices, depicting the formation of the marshland along Lake Michigan, are interlaced with the women's voices, representing the Potowatomie settlers. A later section depicting an actual seiche, or tidal wave, that killed eight people along the lakefront in 1954 gives way to a stirring concluding chorale for voices and orchestra. Gandolfi's musical theme would not have been out of place in an Aaron Copland work of the 1940s.

A crowd-pleasing occasional piece, "Only Converge" achieves what it set out to achieve with great musical and textual ingenuity. The writing for massed voices is most appealing and it showed off Bell's remarkably versatile and superbly disciplined choral aggregation beautifully. Gandolfi's confident and colorful symphonic writing reminded one what a first-rate ensemble Kalmar has made of the Grant Park Orchestra.

The piece (which was scheduled to be repeated Saturday night) drew an enthusiastic ovation that the composer shared with Kalmar and Bell. I'm sure the Grant Park crowds that heard this enjoyable, accessible music over the weekend came away with a renewed appreciation of the park's civic and cultural significance.

To commemorate the chorus' golden anniversary, Cedille Records has just released the group's first unaccompanied CD, "Songs of Smaller Creatures and other American Choral Works," a rewarding collection of a cappella pieces by Stacy Garrop, Ned Rorem, Eric Whitacre and others.

Also on Friday, the Grant Park Chorus reprised a brief American choral gem it had first performed and recorded in 2010 – William Schuman's "A Free Song," Secular Cantata No. 2. The first piece of music to receive a Pulitzer Prize (in 1943) is a fervent appeal to American patriotism during World War II, and its sinewy strength came through under Kalmar's vigorous direction.

Liszt's "Les Preludes" and Handel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks" passed the time agreeably without adding much substance to the program besides servings of Romantic bombast and Baroque outdoor music.

Kalmar will lead the Grant Park Orchestra in works by Mozart, Richard Strauss and Benjamin Britten at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday and Friday at the Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park. Pianist Steven Osborne is the soloist; 312-742-7638,