Bell, Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus soar in sacred program

July 23, 2011

by Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review

This weekend’s lakefront program of sacred music marks Christopher Bell’s tenth season as director of the Grant Park Chorus — a group that he has built into a first-class ensemble and a major component of the current quality and success of the Grant Park Music Festival concerts.

One can almost gauge the success of any performance of Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem by how much it makes you want to jump into your grave. Not for the French composer, the fire and brimstone of Mozart or Verdi. Fauré’s view of death and the afterlife is warm, richly lyrical and consolatory, redolent of incense, the cathedral at Rheims and French organ music of the 19th century.

Bell led the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus in a radiant and affecting performance of Fauré’s Requiem Friday night at the Pritzker Pavilion, which gave us one of the musical highlights of the summer.

The challenge in this deceptively tricky work is pointing the contrasts and expressive nuances with enough focus and precision to avoid making the music seem unvaried or soporific.

The scrupulous balances and finely detailed direction Friday night could not have been more communicative. Bell drew notably hushed singing from the chorus in the somer opening Introit, and gracefully charted the move from withdrawn doubt to consoling warmth in the Offertorio.

The sopranos provided radiant singing in the Sanctus with the majestic entrance of the brass and men’s voices delivering the lift and impact. An overmiked harp apart, the closing In Paradisum bestowed just the right beneficent otherworldly glow.

The performance benefited immensely from two young Grant Park Chorus members who proved superb soloists. Kevin Keys possesses a resonant baritone and provided firmly focused singing in the dramatic moments of the Hostias and the passing shadows of the Libera me. Recent DePaul graduate Lindsay Metzger brought a youthful soprano and touching sincerity to the Pie Jesu.

One could hardly wish for a greater contrast with Fauré’s mellow spirituality than the brash theatricality of Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. The concise tripartite work is typically audacious Lenny — in its Hebrew setting (for a commission by an Anglican church) as well as the free mix of Bernstein’s boisterous jazz-inflected style with the rapt tenderness of the central Psalm 23 (the melody coming from a discarded song originally written for West Side Story).

The challenge with performing the Chichester Psalms is the invariably tremulous singing of the boy treble in the middle movement. Bell wisely elected to follow recent tradition with an adult countertenor instead, Ryan Belongie. It was balm to the ears to hear this lovely music sung securely with Belongie’s plaintive sweet tone evoking the right searching innocence.

Bell led a superb performance with the frenzied vitality of the opening movement put across with bracing rhythmic fervor by the Grant Park Chorus and Orchestra. The tricky segue from unease and doubt to acceptance in the final movement was handled with equal skill by Bell and his forces.

The evening’s centerpiece was Bach’s Cantata No. 170, Vergnügte Ruh. The text is characteristic in high Lutheran fashion with a denunciation of the evils of earthly life and the longing for the salvation and solace brought by death.

It was daring of Bell to program an intimate Bach solo cantata in the al fresco atmosphere, and ambulance sirens and a helicopter briefly intruded on the proceedings.

Belongie has the apt, high flexible instrument for this repertoire and handled the stratospheric passages with agility and a graceful Bach style. The American countertenor’s tone is a bit pallid and lacking in color and the second aria had moments of expressive blandness, but this was largely a worthy performance. Bell led a small chamber ensemble with an admirable sense of pacing, and flutist Mary Stolper and oboe d’amore player Judith Kulb provided inspired obbligato support.