Grant Park fans undaunted by challenging program

June 19, 2011

by Andrew Patner, Chicago Sun-Times

You sometimes just have to pinch yourself.

American classical music critics almost to a person keep saying, “If you offer interesting programs, don’t dumb down, and play the music well, the people will come and the word will spread.”

And while poorly managed and led operations such as the Philadelphia Orchestra plug their ears and lurch the other way, Chicago’s Grant Park Music Festival and its top-flight orchestra and chorus have been going the challenging route and bringing audiences in by the — literally — thousands.

This season, the first with Carlos Kalmar officially carrying out artistic director as well as principal conductor duties, some of the programming is downright weird, but in a fascinating way. And with nearly 3,000 people sitting through a heavy downpour for Wednesday night’s opening performance of the Berlioz “Symphonie fantastique” and 10,000 people filling the seats and Great Lawn at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion on Friday’s balmy night for two works they certainly had not heard live before — and probably had never even heard of — one wonders if there‘s a justification for any other formula. (Hello, Ravinia!)

Say the name Arnold Schoenberg, even on a classical music station or in a concert hall, and you are told that folks will run for the hills. Instead on Friday night in Millennium Park, they sat in rapt silence as Kalmar led the first Festival performance of the Modernist composer’s 1907 “Friede auf Erde” (“Peace on Earth”). It’s heavy but beautiful sledding — richly rewarding as Schoenberg (1874-1951) moves away from and comes back to key signatures in the course of 10 minutes.

Chorus director Christopher Bell, out of the block in typical racing form at the start of his 10th season here, explained to the audience that the chorus was in such great shape that Kalmar would lead them in the more difficult a cappella version rather than the published one with orchestral accompaniment training wheels listed in the program. This celebration of peace during a lengthy lull in European conflicts gave numerous insights into Schoenberg’s philosophy and changing religious affiliations as well as his musical breakthroughs, here on the first of many precipices he would leap in his development of new forms of music. The chorus enunciated and followed all dynamics clearly and with Kalmar presented a warm glow around the work’s hard core.

The major work of the evening in terms of length and forces was more of a curiosity: Mendelssohn’s 1840 “Lobgesang” (“Hymn of Praise”) a “symphony-cantata” for orchestra, chorus and three vocal soloists that was its composer’s fourth symphony (of five) but published as his second. It was commissioned by Leipzig, long Germany’s publishing capital, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s first use of movable type, which revolutionized printing and also made much of the Protestant Reformation possible. Mendelssohn, another composer of multiple religious identities, piles on scraps of writings of Martin Luther, German translation of the Hebrew Bible, hymns in bare and ultra-harmonized versions and declamations of three soloists, and even opens with an entirely separable three-movement “Sinfonia” for orchestra alone.

Usually the province of conductors in Leipzig such as Kurt Masur and Riccardo Chailly, Kalmar, like the exceptional Claudio Abbado, instead made as strong a case as possible for the piece as music, pure and simple (though he took the orchestral opening at a pretty fast clip). Chorus and orchestra — those trombones! — poured their hearts out. Tenor Brendan Tuohy (the best known section, “Watchman, will the night soon pass?”) and soprano Tamara Wilson were more then well-suited to their leading roles, and when soprano Maire O’Brien joined Wilson in “I waited on the Lord,” there was sweet music indeed.