Larmore Adds Glamor

July 02, 2007

The Grant Park Orchestra and Grant Park Chorus led a nomadic life last week, as they are obliged to do whenever they are displaced from their summer home by the Taste of Chicago's hungry hordes.

But over the weekend one had only to venture a few steps from the Pritzker Pavilion to catch the orchestra indoors at the Harris Music and Dance Theater. A couple of nights earlier the chorus migrated to Holy Family Church, in the UIC area, for a program of accompanied and unaccompanied choral works. Both concerts included American music and proved well worth seeking out.

Cedille Records was taping most of Friday's orchestra concert under principal conductor Carlos Kalmar, a fact that didn't greatly deter some audience members from coughing and rustling purses and programs.

If the vibrant mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore gave the program a dose of old-fashioned diva glamor, its deepest musical satisfactions came from two recent works by Aaron Jay Kernis, "Newly Drawn Sky" and "Too Hot Toccata."

Kernis writes luminously for orchestra in "Newly Drawn Sky," an evocative reminiscence of a summer night the composer spent with his children by the ocean. The piece was commissioned by the Ravinia Festival, where it was first heard in 2005. Truth be told, Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra made it sound like a different, and appreciably better, piece than I recall from the premiere.

They did equally well with "Too Hot Toccata," which sounds like deconstructed jazz with its off-kilter rhythms and obstreperous bustle.

Larmore's portion of the program proved a more mixed bag.

I enjoyed the rare opportunity of hearing someone else besides Janet Baker (who had given the world premiere in 1976) sing Britten's cantata "Phaedra," his last major vocal work. Based on Robert Lowell's translation of Racine's "Phedre," this austere, acutely colored score has the unhappy Phaedra recounting her "thick adulterous passion" for her husband Theseus' son Hippolytus. The Barrington-based mezzo threw herself into words and music with admirable dramatic force.

I found less to admire in her account of Ravel's song cycle "Sheherazade," which found her tone somewhat thin and dry for the sensuous vocal lines of this exotic travelogue and the emotions externally applied. Not much spontaneity from conductor or orchestra either.

The American choral pieces directed by Christopher Bell and splendidly sung by his Grant Park Chorus were something else again. Alongside classics by Barber, Copland and Bernstein were works by two of our finest living choral composers, Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen. The former's "Cloudburst" is an absorbing piece of musical onomatopoeia, the latter's "O Magnum Mysterium" an ethereally beautiful meditation. If Bell isn't the city's most inspiring choral director, I don't know who is.

John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune