Grant Park Chorus Lifts Voices in Praise

July 26, 2009

The 80-voice Grant Park Chorus has been a standout ensemble since its founding by Thomas Peck in 1962. It is fully professional; many of its members teach music, sing with ensembles like Music of the Baroque or belong to the Lyric Opera or Chicago Symphony choruses.

The Grant Park Chorus is one of Chicago's hidden gems.

As thousands of new visitors find their way to Millennium Park's Pritzker Pavilion every summer for free concerts, they probably know that they're going to hear a top-flight orchestra that can play everything from Bruckner to bossa nova. They might be surprised, though, by an unexpected bonus: a chorus that is perhaps the city's finest and most versatile.

The 80-voice Grant Park Chorus has been a standout ensemble since its founding by Thomas Peck in 1962. It is fully professional; many of its members teach music, sing with ensembles like Music of the Baroque or belong to the Lyric Opera or Chicago Symphony choruses. Some of them do just about all of the above. But in the last few years, under the direction of Irish-born, Scotland-based Christopher Bell, the ensemble has surpassed even its own high standards.

You can hear the chorus in two sets of concerts with the Grant Park Orchestra in coming weekends. At 6:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Grant Park presents Edward Elgar's massive choral work, "The Dream of Gerontius.'' The 2009 season closes Aug. 14-15 with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and its stirring "Ode to Joy'' finale. Principal conductor Carlos Kalmar conducts all four concerts.

Director of the Grant Park Chorus since 2002, Bell is a lean, no-nonsense man in his mid-40s with a quick, dry wit and a direct gaze framed by wire-rimmed glasses. Thanks to his melodious Irish-Scottish accent, it's easy to imagine him decades ago as a mischievous choir boy in Belfast. When his father, an Anglican clergyman, suggested that he and his brother join the cathedral choir, Bell found himself auditioning for a choir director who seemed as old as J.S. Bach

"When you're 9 or 10,'' Bell recalled, "everyone seems like they're 100. I subsequently realized that this old man wasn't a very old man at all. He wasn't dead; quite far from it. He was still in very respectable condition. In fact, he maybe was in his mid- to late 20s."

Bell excelled in the all-boy choir but happily moved on to a mixed choir, thrilled at the chance to meet girls. He also began to study organ.

"It was a very big cathedral and a very loud organ with big, trumpety stops,'' he said. "I decided I would like to make all that noise. I wanted to be in charge of all that."

While doing graduate work at Edinburgh University, Bell was asked to conduct the University Choir, a 120-voice student group open to anybody who cared to join. He instantly declined. "They were un-auditioned,'' he said, "and really quite terrible.''

Eventually persuaded to take the post, he found himself enjoying every arduous minute of the rehearsals and performances.

"I loved the theater of it,'' he said. "I loved the fact that each rehearsal was about motivating people, about getting people to sing something they weren't able to sing before.''

After that initially unwelcome gig in Edinburgh and a period of serious conducting study in Vienna, his career was launched. Bell has held staff positions with major choruses throughout the United Kingdom, and in 2000 he caught the attention of James Paul, then Grant Park's principal guest conductor, who was conducting in Scotland. Grant Park was looking for a chorus director and Bell took over the job two years later.

Matt Greenberg, executive director of Chicago a cappella, an innovative choral group, has sung with the Grant Park chorus for 13 years. He values Bell's combination of high spirits and high expectations.

"I've worked with a whole lot of wonderful musicians and a lot of really charismatic, strong leaders," Greenberg said. "He is both."

Melding 60 to 80 singers into an expressive musical instrument is never easy, said Greenberg. It's even more difficult with highly trained professionals who might be tempted to treat the Grant Park Chorus as a fun summer break from busy teaching schedules or work with the Chicago Symphony or Lyric Opera choruses.

"You've got to create very high expectations, which he does, and keep us on task," Greenberg said. "But [choral directors must] also convey a real sense of joy in rehearsals, communicating fun and joy into everything we do. That's a real tightrope to walk.''

"I find him inspirational,'' said Elizabeth Gottlieb, a soprano with the Grant Park Chorus for more than 25 years, who has taught at DePaul University and the College of DuPage. "He works very fast, and he's assembled a group of people who enjoy working fast. He has to, because at Grant Park, we have so little rehearsal time and we're doing ambitious programs.

"He also has a great, great sense of humor,'' she said. "He's playful, he's clever. There's constant word play. But underneath it all, he's terribly serious about what he does.''

Mezzo-soprano Karen Brunssen sang in the Grant Park Chorus for many years until her solo career gathered speed. She has sung extensively in the United States and England, but four years ago she found herself longing to return to Grant Park.

"I really think this is the finest chorus I know of,'' she said. "Many of the people in the chorus have their own careers as solo performers. It takes one heck of a person to put all that together. Christopher Bell is it."

The Grant Park Chorus' repertoire can range from Renaissance a cappella music to Broadway show tunes in a single season, so Bell looks for versatile musicians. And he demands as much of himself as he does of his singers. He studied orchestral conducting, he said, because he didn't want to be the kind of chorus director who knows very little about how orchestras work.

"It's a matter of personal pride,'' he said. "If I'm going to do something, I want to make sure that I'm going to do it at the best level possible. I enjoy that. I like the fact that when a chorus sings well, people say, 'That's a great chorus.' Then I know I've done my job properly.''

Wynne Delacoma, Chicago Sun-Times