Chorus 'golden' in American choral works
June 29, 2011
by John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune
The Grant Chorus next year will celebrate its 50th anniversary, a major milestone for a choral organization that has proved such a valuable asset to the parent Grant Park Music Festival and to the remarkably abundant choral music life of the area in general.
Christopher Bell, whose dynamic leadership has built the Grant Park contingent into as fine a symphony chorus as any to be found anywhere in the nation, is celebrating a more immediate milestone, his 10th anniversary as chorus director. Bell, who also holds major posts as chorus master in Scotland and his native Ireland, is as much a civic treasure as his group.
The twinkly Ulsterman moved his choristers indoors to the Harris Theater at Millennium Park Tuesday night for their annual appearance independent of the Grant Park Orchestra, a diverse and absorbing program of American a cappella choral works. It proved a marvelous showcase for their abilities.
The Chicago-based Cedille Records is recording the week's concerts for a CD to be released during the chorus' golden anniversary season. A repeat performance is scheduled for Thursday evening. (Remember to silence your cellphones, coughing and entr'acte chatter.)
Bell scaled down his group from 100 to roughly 58 singers, an ensemble small enough to enforce intimacy of expression and clarity of diction, but large enough to achieve a rich fullness of sound. Most of the eight pieces date from within the last 10 years, while the oldest, David Del Tredici's "Acrostic Song" (from "Final Alice"), dates from 1975.
Several works employ extended vocal techniques, and all of them reminded one how much stylistic and expressive diversity can be achieved within an essentially tonal, conservative harmonic vocabulary.
Both "Toward Sunshine, Toward Freedom: Songs of Smaller Creatures" by Abbie Betinis and "Buzzings: Three Pieces About Bees" by Chicago composer Lee R. Kesselman use poems by Walt Whitman, Charles Swinburne, Emily Dickinson and others as the basis for whimsical pieces of musical onomatopoeia depicting buzzing bees, spinning spiders and fluttering butterflies.
Another Chicago composer, Stacy Garrop, was represented by her "Sonnets of Desire, Longing and Whimsy," the fourth set of a large cycle that eventually will contain about two dozen sonnets by Edna St. Vincent Millay, grouped into nine sets. Diverse aspects of love are the subject of these expertly crafted songs, which employ sighing women's voices, interlaced part-writing and other devices to penetrate to the poetic heart of the matter.
Also rewarding to mind and ear were two pieces by Eric Whitacre, "the world god of American choral music," as Bell called him in his spoken introduction. "When David Heard" is a powerful, intensely moving lament based on the biblical tale of David and Absalom; "Sleep" eases itself into slumber in ravishing consonant harmonies.
Ned Rorem's "Seven Motets for the Church's Year," written between 1977 and 1986, make an affecting statement from a professed non-believer who believes in the power of belief. At times the composer employs the open-interval harmonies of ancient church music in a modern context, vividly so.
Paul Crabtree's "Five Romantic Miniatures from the Simpsons" isn't what you might think it is. Rather than try to mirror the cartoonish antics of TV's iconic, dysfunctional, animated family, these choral vignettes set actual texts from the long-running series – each a plain-spoken, oddly profound outburst of love – to music serious, sweet and poignant. My favorite lines were from Homer: "Marge, you make the best pork chops. Mmmmm, pork chops."
In everything they sang the choristers' ability to listen intently to each other (and to the beating heart of the texts); to match and adjust pitches; and to negotiate tight, finely blended unisons and crisply interwoven parts, was beyond cavil. Bell's direction was as polished as the singing. Too bad the program failed to identify the several soloists from the chorus, for each of them sang beautifully.
The Grant Park Chorus will repeat its American choral program at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph Drive. Admission is free; 312-742-7638, grantparkmusicfestival.com.