Christopher Bell guides Grant Park chorus to its peak in requiem program

July 26, 2011

by Andrew Patner, Chicago Sun-Times

We are spoiled in Chicago with three major professional choruses of the highest level. Those of the Chicago Symphony and Lyric Opera are of course widely known, but the summer-only ensemble of the Grant Park Music Festival also has both a distinguished history and a vivid, sometimes shockingly good present.

Credit Christopher Bell, the chipper, Scotland-based Irishman marking his 10th anniversary as chorus director at Grant Park, along with principal conductor Carlos Kalmar, who has a strong interest in and skill with choral works, and Jim Palermo, the festival’s former general and artistic director who hired both men and paired them.

Friday night at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, Bell showed the current peak that his chorus has reached in just the right way with a serious and varied musical program devoid of gimmickry or showing off.

Choosing works that require both power and gentleness, rhythmic drive and flowing lyricism, and featuring two members of his group as soloists, Bell opened with Leonard Bernstein’s 1965 “Chichester Psalms,” which also, like the late-19th-century Fauré Requiem which closed the evening, ultimately views belief, and even death, as comforting rather than coldly abstract or fear-inducing. In between, he offered a 1726 Bach cantata without choir, “Vergnuegte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust” (“Pleasant rest, beloved delight of the soul”), with an alto solo that rages and despairs against the sinfulness and failure of the world.

Young countertenor Ryan Belongie, a Northwestern University alum and a current Adler Fellow at San Francisco Opera, was the soloist in the demanding parts of the Bernstein and the Bach. While Bernstein’s work is written for a boy singer, the more recent custom of using a counter-tenor can pay off if the soloist maintains enough boyishness and innocence in his performance; Belongie did this while adding an appropriate sense of urgency in the central setting (in Hebrew, as is the whole 20-minute piece) of the 23rd Psalm. (A part of the Bernstein miracle is that this section, which feels so right and natural, almost as if the melody arises out of the Hebrew text, was actually written around the same time with Betty Comden and Adolph Green as “Spring Will Come Again” for a never-realized musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth.”)

While Belongie still has growing to do — and plenty of time to do it — in Baroque repertoire, his work in the Bach was courageous, especially considering that this is not a work normally given outdoors. The central recitative, “The world, that house of sin/Breaks out with songs of Hell” was chilling, and unavoidably contemporary as well. Guest organist Richard Hoskins, flute Mary Stolper and oboe d’amore Judith Kulb also brought a period and sacred sense to an outdoor secular evening.

Fauré’s 1887-89 Requiem (not charted for full orchestra until 1900) is a test for a chorus and choral director as much as it can be a treat for its listeners. This is not Verdi’s frightening “Dies irae” or any of the (intentionally) creepier passages of Mozart’s own mass for the dead. (In fact, Fauré, like those two giants, a non-believer, omitted the “Day of Wrath” section altogether.) To achieve a level of childlike wonder without straying into kitsch and to keep much of the 40-minute work highly contained both for its own sake and to bring out the occasional burst of sound from brass, male voices, or organ, is a challenge.

Bell’s achievement was so total, in pacing, nuance, and detail, he even succeeded in having his adult soprano and baritone soloists, Grant Park Chorus members Lindsay Metzger (an unassailable “Pie Jesu”) and baritone Kevin Keys (beautiful and never overpowered delivery of the “Hostias” and “Libera me”) come across with rare lightness and no vibrato.

The main marking of the seven-section work is andante moderato, followed by simple andante and moderato each alone, and Bell shaped an offering of constant rocking warmth and, if one can say this about a musical performance, kindness. Often having performed a work makes a listener too critical or parochial in hearing others do it. Nothing of the sort happened here for these ears. This was a perfect performance of a tricky and only apparently simple masterwork, the cap to a splendid evening and a rich decade of Bell and his colleagues’ continuing gifts to Chicago.