Another strong performance of rare works at Grant Park

June 18, 2011

By Alan Artner, Special to the Tribune

The adventurous programming of the Grant Park Music Festival again was on display Friday night at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, as Carlos Kalmar presented two rarities for chorus and orchestra that turned out to be ideal for celebratory listening.

Arnold Schoenberg's 1907 "Friede auf Erden" ("Peace on Earth") had never been performed at the festival. Felix Mendelssohn's 1840 Symphony No. 2, "Lobgesang" ("Hymn of Praise"), was last heard there 75 years ago. So it was by no means certain the pieces would exert appeal together on a contemporary summer series.

The strength of performances, however, swept a large audience past musical difficulties and shortcomings to cheer the unfamiliar as lustily as if it were standard repertory.

"Friede auf Erden" exists in unaccompanied and accompanied versions. The concert program listed the version for chorus and orchestra. But chorus director Christopher Bell explained how Schoenberg added instrumental accompaniment only to help singers manage the music's tricky chromaticism.

The Grant Park Chorus, which Bell has led for a decade, needed no such help. It performed the unaccompanied version stirringly, conveying its ecstasy with full tone and clear diction. Sometimes the work has a hardened impact. Not here. Friday's softer account reminded how "Friede" is contemporary with the late works of Gustav Mahler.

Mendelssohn's "Symphony-Cantata to Words from the Holy Scriptures" occupies a world inspired by Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. It has three purely orchestral movements followed by 10 sections for vocalists and chorus, all played without break.

The orchestral movements have the best music, and Kalmar gave it an exuberant drive that recalled Beethoven. There was no prettified lightness or Victorian solemnity. This was a virile account that moved swiftly, almost convincingly, over the uneven vocal music with its many tiresome repetitions.

The soloists – sopranos Tamara Wilson and Maire O'Brien, tenor Brendan Tuohy – delivered Mendelssohn's piety ardently and sweetly. Chorus and orchestra had added, winning incisiveness.

The program will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.